In recent months, there has been much discussion in South Carolina about tuition at the state’s public colleges and universities, including the College of Charleston.
As most of you know by now, the College’s Board of Trustees voted in June to increase tuition for the current academic year. The increase was necessary for three reasons: to partially offset repeated state budget cuts, to maintain the academic core and competitive standing of our institution and to begin implementing our new 10-year strategic plan.
It is important for every member of our extended College community – from our newest members in the Class of 2014 to our thousands of alumni and supporters all around the world – to understand each of these issues and why failing to address them would threaten the quality and direction of our institution.
Higher education in South Carolina was underfunded long before the current economic crisis arrived. Our state simply has not made higher education a continuing priority in the way that neighboring states such as North Carolina and Georgia did decades ago. In 2008–09, Georgia and North Carolina spent $7,788 and $11,552, respectively, per full-time undergraduate student, while South Carolina spent just $4,820.
The national recession has merely accelerated the decline in South Carolina. Consider that in the 1980s, the State of South Carolina provided 66 percent of the College’s operating budget. This contribution fell to 30 percent in the 1990s, and by 2008 had dropped to 17.5 percent. This academic year, it fell to 8.5 percent – and is expected to continue dropping. Reductions over the past three years alone amount to a loss of state funding of more than $16 million, which is a 45 percent reduction of our state appropriation.
In response to these dramatic losses, the College of Charleston, along with all of the state’s public universities and colleges, made the difficult decision to raise tuition. This has elicited strong reactions from certain of our state’s news outlets and a number of elected leaders.
Much of the attention surrounding tuition increases has focused on percentage increases rather than the actual dollar increase or the total cost of tuition. When evaluating the College’s tuition increase in light of these factors, the College remains affordable relative to other universities in the state and institutions of equal caliber around the country.
The average cost of tuition for South Carolina’s 13 four-year public institutions is $9,958. The College of Charleston’s tuition for in-state students is $10,314. If we exclude the unique undergraduate programs at the Medical University of South Carolina, the most costly institution in the state is Winthrop University, with tuition of $12,176, 18 percent higher than the College’s. The second most costly is Clemson University, with a tuition of $11,908, 15 percent higher than the College’s.
It is also important to understand that South Carolina supports its public colleges and universities at disproportionate levels. Some receive a larger percentage of their budgets from the state than others, ranging from a low of 6.27 percent to a high of 21.25 percent. (As noted above, the College receives 8.5 percent of its budget from the state, ranking us near the bottom among the state’s 13 four-year institutions.)
But state support is only part of the equation. The College of Charleston is at a critical juncture in its rise from a small private college to a nationally recognized liberal arts and sciences university. The decision to increase tuition was partially driven by our strong desire to maintain this momentum as well as the quality of our academic programs and student living environments.
Along with our growing reputation have come growing pains. Following significant enrollment increases throughout the 1990s, the College had to face the fact that its facilities and infrastructure could not support a student body of 10,000. As a result, we have been engaged in a concerted effort over the past decade to expand, renovate and build facilities to accommodate this earlier growth. Meanwhile, our fixed costs such as employee healthcare benefits, utilities and maintenance have continued to increase at a much faster rate than inflation.
Our unique location in Charleston’s Historic District also presents us with economic challenges. Nearly everything we do is complicated by the historical significance of most of our buildings, several of which are recognized as National Historic Landmarks. We have 80 buildings over 100 years old. Most people don’t realize that the College of Charleston is the largest historic preservationist in Charleston. We
are honored to be entrusted with the care of national treasures such as Randolph Hall and Towell Library, but this responsibility comes with significant costs.
We must continue planning for a future in which state support of higher education continues to decline. To that end, our new 10-year strategic plan, titled “Gateways to Greatness,” calls on us to refocus and strengthen our efforts to identify and attract outside investment. This includes private fundraising and government grants as well as corporate and foundation giving.
We must also do a better job of engaging our very young alumni so that they maintain strong connections to their alma mater throughout their lives. Among our more than 46,000 living alumni, some 90 percent graduated in 1980 or later! That means that fewer than 5,000 of our alumni are 50 and older, which is generally when people become more interested in philanthropy.
We must establish a culture of philanthropy among our network of graduates and supporters and ensure that they understand and embrace the College’s envisioned future.
By placing the College on a stronger financial footing, we can provide greater access to South Carolinians, first-generation college students and students with significant financial need. The recent tuition increase already has enabled us to begin addressing the very real challenges that many of our students and their families face. Our commitment of an additional $3 million to need-based and merit-based financial aid this academic year and for future years is only the first step.
Our state’s financial challenges need not resign the College to a future of mediocrity. In fact, the budget cutting and economic uncertainty clearly say to us that we must become more responsible for shaping our own future and become more self-sufficient.
To guide us, we have a comprehensive strategic plan that reflects the input and shared vision of all of our stakeholders. I am confident that 10 years from now, we will look back at this period in the long and proud history of the College of Charleston and recognize that forging ahead in pursuit of our institutional goals was exactly the right call.
– President P. George Benson