By Tim Smith, Greenville News and GreenvilleOnline.com
COLUMBIA - University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides' proposal to swap a tuition freeze for more state funding is drawing interest but no promises from lawmakers.
Pastides, who made his proposal in his annual state of the university speech Wednesday, offered to freeze tuition at the state's flagship university for three years if the Legislature would increase state funding.
"This year, I plan to ask state government to work with us -and all public universities - to commit to a Fair Funding strategy," Pastides said, according to a copy of his speech.
"This will help us make higher education accessible and affordable and it will stem the deplorable trend of fewer Americans and fewer South Carolinians attending college."
Pastides said colleges and universities in the state have only received about 2.7 percent of almost $1 billion in new recurring dollars from lawmakers in the past two years.
The USC-Columbia campus was appropriated about $106 million in General Fund dollars for the current year out of a total budget for the campus of almost $1 billion, legislative budget records show. In fiscal year 2009, lawmakers appropriated $178.8 million to the campus, according to records.
The school this summer raised tuition for the current school year by 3.13 percent, to $10,816 for in-state students.
"I'll ask the state to recognize that unfunded mandates relating to government-determined faculty and staff raises, increases in employer health insurance contributions and increases in energy costs have been borne by our students and their families and this is not fair," Pastides said.
Pastides also offered to place a moratorium on earmarked funds for specific university projects.
"Again, I would do that in favor of stable and fair funding, and all of our chancellors have agreed that this would be best," he said.
USC, along with other state colleges and universities, has worked with Gov. Nikki Haley to develop a performance-based funding plan that would use factors such as a school's graduation rate to determine the money it gets from the state.
A spokesman for Haley responded to Pastides' proposal by noting the governor has suggested increased funding for higher education in every one of her budget plans.
"Our public colleges and universities play a huge role in economic development and job recruitment efforts, they must be affordable and accessible for our students, and that's why Gov. Haley has recommended increased funding for higher education in every one of her balanced budgets," said Doug Mayer, a spokesman.
"It is also why the governor has fought, alongside President Pastides, for accountability-based funding reform measured on performance, which has been passed by the House and awaits passage in the Senate."
Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Vincent Sheheen, a state senator who sits on the Senate Education Committee, praised Pastides' offer, saying it "is exactly what we need."
"The number one job of a governor is to create opportunity and deliver results for businesses and families to thrive in our state - that starts with education," Sheheen said.
"The offer extended by President Pastides today is exactly what we need: having the state and our universities work together to make higher education more affordable."
Sheheen said the state in recent years has "dis-invested" in higher education.
"And it's hurt our people and our economy," he said. "South Carolina has one of the highest tuition rates in the Southeast, so students either aren't able to come here or are saddled with massive debt when they graduate. With the deck stacked against our young people, it's no wonder South Carolina is one of the hardest places in the nation to achieve the American dream."
Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson of Columbia, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said he hadn't seen Pastides' proposal and needed more information about it before deciding whether it had merit.
"Sometimes the devil is in the details and on this one in particular," Courson said.
Sen. Mike Fair of Greenville, who also sits on the Senate Education Committee and is a former USC trustee, said he would have to hear a lot more about the proposal before supporting it. He said the university ought to be freezing tuition anyway.
Sen. Larry Martin, a Pickens Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and sits on the education panel, said Pastides' proposal "is worth looking at."
"I applaud his incentive," he said. "I don't know that will be practical for every institution but it sends a good message to the Legislature."
Martin said higher education is important to the state's future and economy and if students leave the state's universities carrying a large amount of student loan debt, "It's going to be a drag on the economy."
"It's a much more serious problem than people realize," he said.