How South Carolina’s ‘Student Bill of Rights’ Could Sink South Carolina State

Last month, auditors from South Carolina’s Commission of Higher Education released a report on the productivity of programs offered at its public colleges and universities. Benchmarks in enrollment and degrees awarded were the standard in determining the value of specific programs.

The audit found that 14% of 1,087 programs among the colleges were non-compliant with minimal enrollment standards. And of those 153 programs falling short of the benchmarks, South Carolina State University led all surveyed institutions with 32% of 67 audited degree programs not meeting the mark.

Given the state’s woeful record on investment in higher education combined with SCSU’s history of leadership turnover, corruption and legislative interference over the last decade, it’s not surprising that the university has more than 20 programs which do not enroll many students or do not graduate them. And with this data in mind, combined with a mandate from Gov. Henry McMaster for schools to reel in spending, SCSU and other public institutions will face one of their biggest challenges yet:

A state-supported ‘Student Bill of Rights,’ on its face, seeks to offer students greater access to education in-state higher education, affordable college tuition rates, and more detailed information about schools success in graduating students.

The plan emerges just a few months after the Higher Ed Commission went into overdrive promoting how spend-crazy the state’s public institutions have been for far too long.

Here is a breakdown on each of the details of the Bill of Rights framework, and how they could significantly harm South Carolina State.

Qualified in-state students should be first in line in the admission process, and out-of-state growth should not necessitate institutional expansion and capital spending. Out-of-state enrollments should be assessed, managed and potentially capped. We welcome students from throughout the country, appreciate the diversity and enhancement they bring to the educational experience, and encourage them to make South Carolina their home upon graduation. Our priority, however, must be to the taxpayers and students of this state. A significant majority of students attending our public universities should be from South Carolina, and institutions should be encouraged to set admission goals consistent with that standard.

In James Clark’s first year as SCSU president, out-of-state students represented 17% of SCSU’s total first-time undergraduate enrollment. In the four years prior? The average exceeded 23%. The university met the mark in increasing revenue from in-state students but fell well short of its recent history on attracting out-of-state and international students who pay more than $20,000 in tuition and fees.

Forcing the school to dial back out-of-state recruiting puts more pressure on the school to attract in-state students, which if it dips gives the school no financial space to navigate operational costs and debts.

Students should be able to freely transfer qualified courses between institutions. A system should be created to remove transferability barriers.

Course credit transfer obstacles are designed to limit students’ capacity to waste money, to maintain academic quality assurance, and to punish students for reducing schools’ graduation rates. Making it easier to get into SCSU, or to leave it, puts the school at greater vulnerability for tuition revenue losses and poor metrics in graduation rates, retention and student service provision.

Cost of attendance should be capped, frozen, or decreased. While there may be rare and extraordinary circumstances that necessitate cost of attendance increases, institutions should actively seek ways to make higher education more affordable. Students should not be faced with the impossible choice of financial burden for their families or crippling debt upon their graduation. Institutions should adopt policies of transparency and consistency in disclosing fees. Students and their families have the right to know exactly what their education will cost. All fees should be clearly stated and transparent, and public institutions should use consistent terminology to allow for comparison.

In 2015, Pennsylvania higher education officials sought to cap tuition at its public institutions. Three years later, the state is looking to consolidate its institutions, with embattled Cheyney University as the centerpiece for the reorganization.

The Commission on Higher Education should collect, assess and monitor institution budgets (as proscribed by law) and enrollments. Students and their families have the right to expect that at every SC public college and university, they are placing their futures in the hands of strong and financially stable institutions. South Carolina’s students have the right to expect that their success and well being will be at the heart of every decision made at every level within the state’s higher education system.

Additional auditing and reporting requirements will continually expose SCSU as one of the state’s worst institutional performers, without a context of the school’s mission and challenges, and the areas where it is strongest. If SCSU faces the prospect of cutting degree programs for underperformance, what happens to its enrollment and funding prospects in the face of unqualified details of its shortcomings?

Tuition limits and transparency sounds great during election cycles and in the name of educational access. But for South Carolina State, it’s just the kind of deal that will cause even more disruption at the worst possible time.

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