Despite tuition ‘freeze,’ college in SC will be more expensive in 2019-2020

While universities and politicians celebrate their efforts to “freeze” tuition, college students throughout the state will brace themselves for an increasingly expensive degree.

That’s because even though tuition will stay roughly where it’s at, room and board is poised to increase as much as ever.

The tuition “freeze,” a one-year law written into the state budget, is a tradeoff where S.C. public colleges receive an additional $36 million in funding in exchange for raising tuition no more than is required to pay for state-mandated pension and health care costs, budget documents show.

Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, who has been advocating for a more permanent and nuanced version of the tuition freeze called the Opportunity Act, calls the budget a “step in the right direction.”

“Short term, we did well,” Sheheen said of the legislature and the governor’s office, which supported the freeze. “But long term, if we don’t come up with a more permanent solution, we’ll be back to where we were, having 3 or 4 percent increases every year.”

The original budget, proposed by Gov. Henry McMaster, promised increased funding for colleges in exchange for no tuition raises. By the time it reached his desk for final approval, colleges were able to raise tuition just enough to cover health care and pension costs.

“(The tuition freeze) is not identical to what the governor proposed, but it’s a step in the right direction,” McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said.

Clemson University, the first major South Carolina college to set tuition for the 2019-2020 school year, raised tuition 1 percent for the 2019-2020 school year.

In-state Clemson students can expect to pay, per year, $150 more in tuition, $59 to $418 more in housing (depending on the dorm) and $189 to $208 more in freshman meal plan costs (depending on the plan), according to a previous article from The State.

That means Clemson students who live and eat on campus will still see their cost of attendance increase by at least $389.

“It costs as much to stay in an on-campus dorm room as it does to stay at a very spacious off-campus house,” Sheeheen said, citing his son’s experience attending Clemson. “Colleges need to be more sensitive” of housing costs.

Though, that’s progress from last year, at least in terms of tuition. Last year, Clemson in-state tuition increased 1.75 percent, or $258. Housing at the least expensive dorm increased $172 and the price of the budget meal plan increased $155. That means the cost of attending Clemson last year increased by at least $585.

“Housing and dining, by law, get no state support,” Clemson spokesman Joe Galbraith said in an email. “They must be self-supporting, and the increases cover costs associated with providing these services.”

Inflation and local housing costs influence those price increases, but students are also seeking more creature comforts, Galbraith said.

“Student demand drives many of the decisions around housing and dining, and there is a greater call for housing amenities than in the past and more demand for healthier and greater food options,” Galbraith said.

Sheheen said he has also seen dorms become more luxurious since he was in school, something that drives up costs.

“People expect a lot nicer stuff in dorms,” Sheheen said.

College of Charleston also increased undergraduate, in-state tuition from $12,418 to $12,518, an increase of $100, or .8 percent, according to a release from the school. The year before that, College of Charleston increased tuition by $420, or 3.5 percent, according to data from the S.C. Commission on higher education.

While a .8 percent might not seem like much — it’s certainly lower than some recent years — tuition has reached such heights that even a small percentage change can have impacts on tuition.

For example, in 2000, when Clemson raised raised tuition by 3.5 percent, from $3,470 to $3,590, it meant an increase of $120 ($182 in today’s money), according to S.C. Commission on Higher Education data. Clemson’s 1 percent tuition increase for the 2019-2020 school year means an increase of $150 for students.

Other S.C. colleges and universities will likely increase the cost of attendance for the 2019-2020 school year.

The University of South Carolina, for example, bases its meal plan increases on a standardized national average called the Higher Education Price Index, which measures the average inflation of college spending, USC spokesman Jeff Stensland said. Last year, meal plan costs increased 3.5 percent and housing costs, which are based on several factors such as salaries and maintenance, increased roughly 4 percent, according to a previous article from The State. USC has said it will likely set tuition later this month.

However, Coastal Carolina University appears to be an exception.

There, housing costs have not increased since 2014 and the school has promised not to increase housing costs until fiscal year 2022-2023, spokeswoman Martha Hunn said in an email. In fact, students receive a $75 rebate for staying in student housing, Hunn said.

Last school year, most meal plans increased an average of 1.5 percent to “cover increased food and labor costs and to provide additional services,” Hunn said. The budget meal plan, called “Basic 21,” has not increased cost in several years, Hunn said.

Coastal Carolina’s board of trustees could vote on 2019-2020 tuition rates as soon as next week, Hunn said.

Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article misstated the last year in which housing costs at Coastal Carolina University increased.