Cindi Ross Scoppe

USC has a plan to cut the cost of a college degree. You might not like it

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DURING COLLEGE orientation, I learned that I had placed out of several semesters of English and French, and realized I could graduate a semester early. One year of summer school could double that. I was foolishly in a hurry to get on to the next phase of my life, and graduating in three years instead of four had the added advantage of cutting my costs — for tuition, fees, housing and meals — by a quarter.

The financial incentive was glaringly obvious, yet even decades later, the concept seems lost on most people.

In this country, we don’t even talk about completing a four-year degree in four years anymore. The benchmark is now six years. As in, “About 60 percent of students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at a 4-year institution in fall 2010 completed that degree within 6 years,” according to the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics.

So I was all in when I learned that one of USC President Harris Pastides’ top strategies for cutting the cost of a college degree is reducing the number of semesters students spend on campus.

Much like his counterpart at Clemson, Dr. Pastides has been working for several years to encourage students to start at a two-year or technical college and then transfer to USC to finish; this year, about 2,000 juniors will transfer to USC. Five years ago, he launched Palmetto College, an online campus where students can finish their USC degrees, or simply pick up a few more credits; about 1,200 students are currently enrolled.

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Cindi Ross Scoppe

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But as state funding has continued to evaporate and concerns about college debt have mounted, Dr. Pastides has become more aggressive about cutting the time traditional students spend on campus.

We urge, almost to the point of requiring, on-time graduation, and even early graduation,” Dr. Pastides told me during a recent visit. “The days of ‘Mommy and Daddy will pay another year or two’ — those days or gone. We want students to know we expect them to graduate in four or fewer years.”

Thanks to high school AP courses and other programs, many students enter USC with 15 to 30 hours of credit toward the 120 semester hours needed to graduate. That means students who take 15 credits a semester — which used to be the standard — can graduate after three and a half or four years. Which is a lot cheaper than sticking around five or six years.

As part of the “On Your Time” effort, Dr. Pastides says, the university has also been bulking up its summer school offerings, to provide required courses for students who are “getting ahead or trying not to get behind.” Summer school enrollment has grown from about 1,000 students a decade ago to 5,000 this year, and “we now have hundreds and hundreds of students who graduate in less than four years.” That benchmark six-year graduation rate is 72 percent (compared to 60 percent nationally). The four-year rate is 54 percent, which doesn’t sound that great until you realize that it’s just 33 percent nationally.

Critics will say that encouraging students to graduate sooner is just a cover for raising tuition year after year. That’s absurd.

Think about what we pay for everything else we buy: We can reduce the amount of money we spend on gas, even if the price goes up, by driving less, or driving a more fuel-efficient vehicle, or driving more efficiently. We can cut our food costs by eating out less, by buying less expensive food, by shopping at a cheaper grocery store. If money is an object, it makes sense to use some of those same tactics on college costs.

But let’s talk about tuition.

In 2008, according to a study released this summer by the American Federation of Teachers, South Carolina ranked 31st nationally in the amount of money the state provided per college student. Then the Legislature cut budgets across state government in response to the recession.

By 2016, lawmakers had restored funding to most of government, but per-student funding for colleges and universities had dropped to 40th nationally; only five states made deeper cuts. Even total dollars to S.C. colleges dropped, from $840 million in 2008 to $615 million in 2017, while total government funding had grown from $7 billion to $8.4 billion. (See the chart at the bottom of this column.)

And we wonder why colleges and universities keep raising tuition? I don’t, actually, but legislators seem to be at a loss to understand the connection.

Yes, you can argue that when the Legislature slashes an agency’s funding, that agency needs to cut its costs rather than simply finding other places to get money. And as someone who is sometimes shocked by the sorts of spending my friends in the public sector take for granted, I feel sure there are nip-and-tuck savings to be found, at USC and other agencies. But I also realize that there are some costs that can’t be cut without damaging the quality of education we make available to the people who will one day be our state’s business, civic and governmental leaders.

Dr. Pastides is looking for ways to “constrain tuition increases,” and he says the days of increasing tuition by 5 percent to cover cost are over.

But he also expects some help, so he’s working with other college leaders to support Sen. Vincent Sheheen’s proposal to dedicate a portion of online sales tax revenue to colleges, in return for holding down tuition increases and out-of-state enrollment. That should be a significant source of new revenue starting next year, since the U.S. Supreme Court reversed itself this summer and said retailers can be required to collect sales taxes for states where they don’t have a physical presence.

“I do think that government’s role goes beyond admonishing us to constrain costs,” Dr. Pastides said. “It’s got to include helping us as well.”

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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