The Buzz

As SC tuition rates rise, lawmaker issues stern warning to college officials

S.C. House members declined Thursday to endorse a colleague’s proposal to lock-in in-state tuition rates for college students.

But one lawmaker told universities that the proposal is likely to be only the first of many to address “spiraling tuition rates.”

“What you are beginning to see is a visceral backlash amongst in-state people,” said state Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Richland. “What I am concerned with is that the (college) model seems to be just: ‘Give us more money, and we’ll keep doing the same.’

“There’s no more money.”

Since the Great Recession, S.C. taxpayer funding of higher education has dropped almost 40 percent. As a result, college trustees say they have had no choice but to raise tuition rates to offset lost state money and pay the costs of deferred maintenance, health care and salaries.

The state’s average sticker price for in-state tuition is $12,610 a year, based on numbers from the state’s 13 public, four-year colleges, according to the College Board. The cost for out-of-state students is $31,350 a year.

At the University of South Carolina, in-state tuition is $12,000 a year. However, in-state students spend only half of that amount on tuition –an average of $6,000 – after factoring in lottery scholarships and other student aid.

State Rep. Joshua Putnam, R-Anderson, proposed Thursday to freeze tuition for students at their freshman-year rate, meaning they would pay that rate for their sophomore, junior and senior years, regardless of what trustees did with tuition rates.

Putnam said his proposal would allow college students to better budget how to cover their tuition for all four years.

Putnam, who is seeking the GOP nomination for secretary of state, said he knows all too well the struggles of college students.

“I had so many students that came to my office (at North Greenville University) that couldn’t continue their education because it is too expensive,” the former career counselor said. “I understand those struggles.”

But lawmakers said Thursday there was not enough detail in Putnam’s bill to move forward with it.

Other states have enacted “tuition locks,” USC director of government relations Derrick Meggie told lawmakers. Georgia, for example, later reversed its tuition locks because college costs sometimes are affected by unpredictable external factors, such as higher health care costs, that schools have no control over, he said.

Putnam said he understood the concerns of university officials.

But, he added, “My responsibility as a lawmaker is not to the institutions. It’s to the constituents. I don’t represent Clemson. I don’t represent USC. I represent (my) constituents. I look after their interests.”

Maayan Schechter: 803-771-8657, @MaayanSchechter