Prepared in Mind and Resources? A Report on Public Higher Education in South Carolina

The South Carolina Motto “Animis Opibusque Parati,” or “Prepared in Mind and Resources,” underscores the fundamental importance the state places on knowledge and learning; and since 1777, this motto has been a part of the state’s Great Seal. Among the Palmetto State’s resources is a diverse cohort of institutions of public higher education, including prestigious research universities, the 45,000-student University of South Carolina System, and the nation’s 13th oldest university’the College of Charleston. With such a variety of public institutions comes the potential for South Carolina to offer a model system that serves the manifold needs of 21st century students, taxpayers, and employers.

In recent years public confidence in higher education throughout the nation has fallen. Half of the respondents in a recent Public Agenda survey said that they believe colleges could spend less and still maintain academic quality; 48% agreed that their state’s public college and university system needed to be fundamentally overhauled.1Such erosion of public confidence is not surprising in light of major studies of student learning. In Academically Adrift, sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa showed that 45% of college students demonstrated little or no learning gains in critical thinking, reasoning, and writing skills in the first two years of college, and a staggering 36% failed to achieve significant intellectual growth after four (expensive) years of college. The federal government’s National Assessment of Adult Literacy revealed that 26% of four-year college graduates would have difficulty computing the total cost of ordering office supplies from a catalog.2

In 2011, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley signed into law the South Carolina Higher Education Efficiency and Administrative Policies Act, maintaining the transparency and accountability that lead to increased academic quality and affordability at colleges and universities. It is in this context that ACTA offers this review of public higher education.

For years, colleges and universities had a simple solution to funding challenges: demand more state money and raise tuition. But increasingly, that approach is not possible. In the wake of stock market volatility and the crash of the housing market, there has been a growing concern that higher education is in a ‘bubble,’ with the cost of a four-year degree far outstripping the benefits of acquiring one. In an uncertain environment, it is imperative that state policymakers ensure that money spent on higher education—whether that money comes from students, parents, donors, or taxpayers—is being expended wisely so that students are graduating with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed. At the same time, it is imperative that policymakers have in place a statewide system that ensures quality and cost—with accountability to the taxpayers of the state.

To ascertain how South Carolina higher education is doing in these key areas, we looked at eight campuses in the state’s public university system: the University of South Carolina (USC) campuses at Columbia, Aiken, Beaufort, and Upstate (Spartanburg); Clemson University; South Carolina State University; Coastal Carolina University; and the College of Charleston. These institutions, taken together, represent not only the geographic breadth of the state but also educate the vast majority of undergraduate students who are enrolled at South Carolina’s four- year institutions.

First, we examined cost and effectiveness. We asked how much families are paying to attend schools, how the schools are spending that money, and what students are getting in return. And we found that this is an area of real concern. From 2005-06 to 2010-11, in-state tuition and fees at institutions in South Carolina increased between 18 and 36%. Meanwhile, at only three out of eight campuses did we find even two- thirds of the students receiving a degree within six years—suggesting that not only is tuition going up, but many students are paying well beyond the expected four years, and even beyond six years. Indeed, less than a quarter of students graduated within four years at a majority of the institutions studied.

With prices rising, are students getting a quality education? In far too many places, the answer is no. We examined general education—those courses usually completed within the first two years of a bachelor’s degree program to ensure a common intellectual background, as well as college-level skills critical to success in the workforce. Here we found that while over half of institutions require a majority of seven core curricular subjects, only three areas—composition, mathematics, and natural or physical science—are part of the core curricula of the majority of institutions. Only one school (College of Charleston) has an intermediate-level foreign language requirement, and only one requires students to take any coursework in economics (South Carolina State University). Fewer than half of the institutions reviewed require a survey course on U.S. government or history, a sad statistic in a state that has such a significant and illustrious history.

Finally, we turn to South Carolina’s higher education governance structure as seen through actions by the state’s Commission on Higher Education (‘Commission’) and by institutional boards of trustees. These boards are responsible for the academic and financial well-being of the institutions they oversee and for safeguarding the public interest. Our examination of structure and outcomes, based on board minutes and other publicly available materials, suggests that South Carolina will never achieve an effective, coherent plan to meet the state’s educational needs of the state until it overhauls the structure of its boards.

The economic recession that has caused hardship for the nation has occasioned a rethinking of higher education cost and effectiveness. ACTA’s hope is that this report will be an urgent call to action—to help the citizens and policymakers of South Carolina strengthen the state’s public higher education system and demonstrate leadership in being ‘Prepared in Mind and Resources.’

Anne D. Neal

President
American Council of Trustees and Alumni

Download the full report here.

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