Hicks column: Who’s to blame for the high cost of higher education?

Way back in the olden days of 2000, in-state tuition at the University of South Carolina ran about $3,900.

That was the priciest public college in this state at the time — Clemson, Coastal Carolina and College of Charleston were all a few hundred bucks less.

Tuition wasn’t cheap, but it wasn’t unreasonable. And state officials that year boldly promised college would become even more affordable if voters approved the South Carolina Education Lottery.

The fine print must have said “assuming you win it.”

Fall semester tuition bills are due in a few weeks, and those of us unfortunate enough to get one will see that the cost of college has more than tripled in just 17 years. That in-state USC tuition is nearly $12,000, and Clemson is more than $14,000.

It would be easy to blame the colleges for this, and not entirely inappropriate. But it’s a lot more complicated than that. South Carolina colleges have suffered from a deadly mix of mission creep, deferred maintenance, a crippling recession and waning political support.

So yeah, the General Assembly is partly to blame.

We’re No. 1

As David Slade reports, college debt has gone up astronomically in the past 15 years — and students get the bill.

The average South Carolina graduate owes $30,000 in student loans. Which means now would be a good time to consider a career in bankruptcy law.

What caused all this? Let’s start with the self-inflicted wounds. In the past two decades, many colleges and universities went on wild building sprees in an attempt to grow enrollment and be all things to all people.

Now, it is reasonable and necessary for universities to grow. But some boards of trustees failed to align their institutional ambitions with economic and political reality.

Since 2008, when recession decimated the state budget, South Carolina has cut per-student funding to public colleges by 37 percent. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank, only three states have done more to gut higher education.

Arizona, Illinois and Louisiana, if you want someone to look down on.

These days the state pays between 8 percent and 15 percent of the budgets at state colleges and universities, and that doesn’t include the mandated salary increases. That leaves schools with only one option to balance their budgets: near-annual tuition increases.

All the new buildings and sports facilities haven’t helped, but colleges were destined for trouble anyway. Even before the recession, the Legislature was not keeping up with preventative maintenance on campuses.

Sound familiar? It’s the same thing that happened to the roads, with the exact same results. Neglect sparks rising user fees.

Trouble is, this isn’t just a few extra bucks at the pump — it’s the most crippling student debt in the South.

A fateful decision

Some of these troubles were set in motion after the state lottery referendum passed.

Not that this is the lottery’s fault.

The Legislature had several models to follow for an education-based lottery, both good (Georgia) and not-so-good (Florida). They split the difference, and it has had consequences.

Georgia’s lottery had a catchy motto: Get a B, go to school for free. But South Carolina’s General Assembly would not make such an open-ended commitment. Lawmakers decided that B-average students would be awarded a $5,000 Life Scholarship.

Which was fine in 2000, when tuition was less than $4,000. But as all these other factors have snowballed, lottery scholarships haven’t kept up with tuition at four-year colleges.

It now costs more to go to college with a lottery scholarship than it did without one in 2000.

And whose fault is that? Take your pick: The Legislature, for not funding higher education adequately, or colleges, for not reining in spending.

In their defense, lawmakers have tried to rectify the problem somewhat. As Paul Bowers reports, the General Assembly has loosened standards to ensure more students get help, and routinely supplements lottery revenue to make sure all qualifying students get a scholarship.

That was a laudable decision, even though there wasn’t much choice. It would be political suicide to scrap such a popular program. Especially with the rising cost of tuition.

Which lawmakers and colleges exacerbated.

There’s an economics lesson in there for state officials: Grow slowly, pay as you go or shell out a lot more down the road.

Unfortunately, today’s college students will be paying the interest on that lesson for a long time.