Politics & Government

High college costs are a problem. So what to do about them?

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The student lending market has grown to more than $1 trillion in outstanding debt. By using data and expert interviews, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau gives context to consumers considering taking on student loans.

Everyone agrees the rising cost of college tuition is a problem. But finding a solution seems difficult.

Take the state’s biggest public university — the University of South Carolina — and the state agency that oversees higher education, including USC.

USC says the problem can be traced back to declining support from state taxpayers.

However, the Commission on Higher Education, which traditionally has advocated more money for the state’s colleges, increasingly is pointing a finger at those institutions as part of the problem.

Commission chairman Tim Hofferth says growth in tuition is in danger of pricing students out of the market, and that could push some smaller colleges out of existence.

“It could lead to institutional failure,” he said.

That problem was highlighted Thursday by a town hall on college affordability hosted by the S.C. Commission on Higher Education, one of a series of events the commission is holding across the state to highlight the challenges rising costs create for the Palmetto State’s colleges and universities.

“This goes to the heart of every family’s dinner table — the ability to afford higher education,” said Hofferth

Hofferth and Jeffrey Schilz, the commission’s interim executive director, stressed to around 100 people that they wanted to present information rather than present solutions, but suggested cost-cutting might be needed to avert “catastrophe.”

They noted in North Carolina, which has a more powerful board of regents, out-of-state enrollment at larger institutions has been capped in an attempt to divert more students to smaller institutions. USC and other South Carolina institutions have seen a growth in out-of-state students in past years, although numbers show many leave the state after graduation.

But some at Thursday’s event worry what effects any limits might have on a major S.C. institution. John Lumpkin with the Midlands Business Leadership Group noted the economic impact of the university, which the school itself estimates at $5.5 billion statewide.

“We don’t want to stymie the real economic growth that’s happening in South Carolina.”

But Lexington’s Kerri Dowdy worries about the long-term impact of college costs. She said her 19-year-old son took out $12,000 in student loans just to complete his first year at USC. She was hopeful some middle-ground could be found between cost-control and more state funding.

Public colleges point out they are getting less and less support from S.C. taxpayers, down by 40 percent since the Great Recession of 2008. At the same time, the University of South Carolina says it has had to absorb $77 million in unfunded mandates imposed by state government — from higher health care costs to higher pensions costs. They argue out-of-state growth helps fill the gap.

USC president Harris Pastides worries the relationship between colleges and the commission that oversees higher education has gotten too adversarial.

“They are our natural ally, and sometimes rhetoric gets in the way,” Pastides said. “What I would say to them is: ‘Let’s work together.’ ... The only people who will be happy if we’re duking it out are people who are against advancing higher education. And I know they’re not and we’re not, so let’s collaborate.”

Pastides said he wants to work with the commission to find ways USC can better control its spending, “But don’t say ... tightening our belts alone ... because that’s mistaken.”

USC has said its top goal this year is to hold down tuition, but Pastides told legislators this week during a State House visit that they “hold the key” to meeting that goal.

USC’s president said the state needs to set a predictable funding formula for public universities.

The Legislature could set whatever goals or benchmarks it likes for schools to unlock that money, Pastides said. The key, he added, is that colleges know what money is coming to them.

Pastides clearly is frustrated by the Hofferth-led Commission on Higher Education.

“Every CHE in modern times has advocated for more funding for education,” Pastides said. “If we can get them on our side on a funding formula, we can get on their side on holding down spending.”

But Hofferth sees CHE’s role as more than advocating for the state’s colleges.

“There are good people trying to help their institution survive,” he said. “But our role is to see how all 33 (of the state’s colleges and universities) work together.

“We’re not against anyone,” said Hofferth, who has an undergraduate degree from USC Aiken and a master’s degree from USC’s Columbia campus. “USC changed my life, and my family’s life, forever.

“And I want your kids and my grandkids to have the same opportunity.”