On Monday, the College of Charleston’s Board of Trustees approved a tuition increase for the 2010-2011 academic year. This difficult but necessary decision keeps tuition affordable for our students and their families without compromising the academic quality and strategic direction of the College. It also allows the College to distribute an additional $3 million of financial aid to students.
Like many colleges and universities in South Carolina and across the nation, the College implemented this increase, in part, to offset state budget cuts. But for the College of Charleston, raising tuition is about more than bridging funding gaps. It is a critical step for the future of our institution.

The College recently completed the development of a new 10-year strategic plan titled “Gateways to Greatness.” It is the result of a two-year planning process that engaged our entire campus community, including students, parents, faculty, staff, alumni, donors, neighbors, members of our governing and advisory boards, as well as political and business leaders. The plan’s formulation demanded countless hours of hard work, careful analysis, and critical self-evaluation. We strongly believe that it signals a transformative moment in the 240-year history of the College and represents a truly shared vision of the College’s future: to become the Southeast’s leading public liberal arts and sciences university.

At the plan’s heart are the College’s three core values: academic excellence; student-focused community; and the unique history, traditions, culture, and environment of Charleston and the Lowcountry. Guided by these values, the College will strive to establish a globally oriented campus culture that embraces innovation, entrepreneurship, philanthropy, diversity, and environmental sustainability.

While liberal arts and sciences education will remain our top priority, the College also will expand and pursue new undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs that take advantage of and enhance the assets of our unrivaled location in Charleston. Nationally recognized programs in areas such as marine biology, environmental science, historic preservation, African-American studies, arts, arts management, and hospitality and tourism will further differentiate the College from other universities around the world.

The implementation of the College’s strategic plan hinges on the adoption of a new financial model — one that moves away from two major revenue streams upon which the College has historically relied. As enrollment increased over the years — from 500 students in 1970 to about 11,600 today — the College could count on increasing revenues. But with the College’s inability to expand at its downtown campus, significant increases in enrollment are no longer an option.

The second source of revenue, state funding of public higher education, has been in steady decline for years. Consider that in the 1980s, the State of South Carolina provided 66 percent of the College of Charleston’s operating budget. This contribution shrunk to 30 percent of the operating budget in the 1990s, and by 2008 it dropped to 17.5 percent. In the next academic year, it will fall to 8.5 percent — and is expected to continue dropping. Reductions over the past two years alone amount to a loss of state funding of more than $16 million. Such drastic cuts make it virtually impossible for the College to recruit and retain the best faculty and staff and to offer adequate amounts of financial aid to the best and brightest students from South Carolina and throughout the world.

We recognize that our state legislators face a daunting task in dealing with budget shortfalls, and they should be commended for their efforts during this unprecedented period of economic stagnation. At the same time, however, the College has an obligation to its students, their families, tens of thousands of alumni, and our faculty and staff to preserve the academic core of our institution. To that end, our strategic plan includes greater emphasis on private and government grants and philanthropy, as well as the development of entrepreneurial, revenue-generating programs and activities. It also includes tuition increases, such as the one our trustees approved on Monday.

If the College does not push ahead with plans for greater financial autonomy, it will cease to provide the high quality educational and student life experiences for which it is known. The College’s trustees and senior leadership refuse to allow our historic university to enter a downward spiral toward mediocrity.

Instead, we are committed to implementing our new strategic plan, “Gateways to Greatness.” It embodies everything that the College of Charleston stands for and everything it can become.

P. George Benson is president of the College of Charleston. Marie M. Land is chairwoman of its Board of Trustees.