Increasing black enrollment starts with tuition costs

THERE'S A LOT of room for debate over what to do when black enrollment drops at the state's flagship universities because academic standards are being ratcheted up and many black students can't meet them: Higher standards make a college education worth more, but it might actually be worth more to our state to help make sure less-advantaged students (which many black students are) get a good education. So should the schools find a way to make exceptions for African-Americans? Should they push down the standards for everyone? Or should we focus our attention on K-12, which turned out the students who couldn't make the grade?

But that's not a debate we have to have right now - although of course we need to see to it that our public schools do a better job of preparing black students (and white students) for college - because there's another reason black enrollment is dropping at USC, Clemson and even the College of Charleston, The Citadel and MUSC. And there's no similar philosophical ambiguity about what needs to be done about it. As The State's Wayne Washington recently reported, a growing number of qualified black students either don't attend once accepted or else don't bother applying at all because they know they can't afford the big schools.

So what we need to be doing is making college more affordable - both for those black students who can't afford it and for white students who can't afford it.

The simple solution is to cap tuition and other expenses. Unfortunately, that creates more problems than it solves. Oh, it might make college more affordable, but it also will drive down the quality, and in education, quality is everything.

We have no doubt that there is wasteful spending in higher education. In fact, there's probably more there than in most of state government, because colleges have been able to raise tuition to offset the crippling budget cuts that the rest of the government has had to endure. But even if we could magically eliminate all of the waste, we'd still be left with the fact that South Carolina has never spent as much tax money per student as other states. That leaves colleges with two options: Spend much less per student, or charge much higher tuition.

Some advocates of tuition caps dispute the numbers by pointing to all the money the state doles out in lottery-funded scholarships. But those scholarships don't increase the amount of money colleges receive; they simply free up money for Momma and Daddy to spend elsewhere. And as budget cuts have forced schools to raise their tuition ever higher, the value of the scholarships has eroded, meaning that many students who receive them still can't afford to attend our best schools.

It would be difficult under any circumstances to undo the mistake the Legislature made when it decided to fund scholarships instead of colleges - more difficult in the middle of a state budget crisis, when we can't pump extra money into colleges to ease the transition. But just about anything we do to move our state forward is difficult; that doesn't mean we don't do it. It means we try harder.

Somehow, some way our state has to reduce the financial barriers that are contributing to the decline in African-American enrollment in our top colleges, because there is simply no way our state will ever claw itself out of its last-on-nearly-every-list hole when a third of our population is treading water. Once we do that, we can figure out whether we have to take on any of those dicier questions.