The Lower Priority of Higher Education
Folks in higher education are supposed to be smart – right? So, my question is why have they (we) in South Carolina allowed higher education to become a lower priority than it ought to be?
There is not one simple answer because there is no one simple problem. But, that said we as a state are not unique and our problems are not unique. Last time I looked, there were 49 other states all with higher education systems, some have the same problems we do and some have different problems.
But the key point here is that whatever problems we have, there are at least a few other states that have the same problem and it looks to me as if most other states have done a better job than we have of dealing with these problems in higher education.
The truth is, this same principle applies to most every other problem we in South Carolina have beyond just higher ed – in K-12 education, health care, job creation and just about everything else that you can name. Someone somewhere is solving just about every problem we have and we need to find out how they are doing it and steal their ideas (this kind of stealing is not against the law).
But, we don’t. We continue to so the same things over and over again and expect different results. (By the way, this is the classic definition of insanity – but we’ll save that for another column.)
So back to higher ed. There are lots of issues about higher ed in the state but most of them in one way or another revolves around money so let’s begin there.
A recent Wall Street Journal study provided a pretty good analysis: South Carolina ranks 41st in spending on higher education. The state spends $5,077 on higher education per full-time student, considerably less than the $6,966 nationwide average. While nearly every state has cut higher education spending since the recession, cuts were especially drastic in South Carolina. The state spends 34.8% less per student today than it did in 2008, more than double the average per-pupil 15.3% spending cut across the country. Also, tuition cost per student in South Carolina is $7,812, the 15th highest of the 50 states.
In short, this is a problem about the high cost of higher education and who pays this high cost. The answer is the students (and their parents) do. Today, 60% of our students in public four year institutions graduate with an average debt of $30, 564 which ranks as the 9th highest in the country. And don’t forget, the average total family income in SC is only $42, 367, 42nd in the country.
Let me boil all these numbers down to one simple sentence that summarizes the problem: our students rank 9th in the amount of debt and they and their families rank 42nd in income to pay these debts.
So, how do we fix it?
Well, if we are going to fix it, let’s really fix it – let’s set a goal that students should graduate debt free. As per above, every other state is having this same problem and in ten states, including South Carolina (more on this later) legislation has been introduced to try and reach this goal of students graduating debt free. Therefore, the first place we should look for solutions is to these other states and we should follow what they are doing (i.e. steal their ideas).
Much of the impetus for debt free college was sparked by the presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton had a $350 billion proposal that would make public universities debt-free across the country. Her plan involved allowing students to refinance their loans, cutting interest rates, requiring states to increase investment in higher education and providing grants to the states. Bernie Sanders also called for tuition-free college with a $75 billion a year plan paid for by imposing a tax on Wall Street speculators.
Donald Trump put forward (in the words of The Washington Post) “a pretty radical student debt plan” that tied repayment of debt to a student’s income. His plan would cap payments at 12.5% of their income and if the make full payments for 15 years, then all other debt would be forgiven. We’ll have to see if Trump can get this done. (If I were a debt laden student, I don’t think I would count on it.)
So back to Gilda Cobb-Hunter’s legislation here in South Carolina, her legislation is simply a resolution putting the legislature on record that they support the goal of debt free college. But she’s not optimistic, “I am very afraid that with all of the issues facing South Carolina this coming year that the issue of student debt will be a lower priority,” said Cobb-Hunter.
So, we are back to where we began – higher education is a lower priority.
We’ll all have to wait and see what Trump and the South Carolina legislature does, but like Cobb Hunter, I’m not optimistic.
While I breathe, I hope.