South Carolina State House

Historic legislation needed to keep S.C. college affordable

An important piece of bipartisan legislation is gaining momentum at the South Carolina State House. Senate Bill 298 seeks to establish something that has never before existed in our state: a dedicated and permanent source of funding for higher education. This game-changing legislation renews the partnership between public colleges and universities and the state in a focused effort to stem the tide of rising tuition costs.

Last fall, at the request of Sen. Harvey Peeler and Sen. Vincent Sheheen, Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman appointed a special South Carolina Senate Committee to hold hearings on the bill. After three hearings last fall and two during the current session, the bill passed the full Senate Finance Committee in February with an overwhelmingly positive vote. With 26 co-sponsors, the bipartisan bill now resides with the full Senate.

As proposed, the dedicated funding for this bill would come from internet sales, which were previously uncollectible, and for South Carolina could translate to tens of millions of dollars annually. These same internet sales, where the tax is paid by out-of-state businesses and not our local main street retailers would, under this bill, smartly be used for the benefit of in-state college students. Most importantly, this bill guarantees that this new funding would be distributed based on in-state enrollment, incentivizing our institutions to recruit and retain South Carolinians – all without raising taxes.

In return, institutions would agree to freeze in-state tuition for at least one year and then cap future increases at a rate that can never exceed inflation, making college more affordable for more in-state students and decreasing out-of-state reliance. After all, the best way to increase the number of in-state students is to fund in-state students. In fact, had this legislation been in place over the last decade, even the most conservative calculations indicate that tuition growth would have been more than 40% slower. Senate Bill 298 can’t erase the past, but what it will do is capture these substantial savings – and more – for our students today and in the future.

The bill also serves three other critical areas. First, it would modernize the state’s scholarship offerings by ensuring the sustainability of current merit-based scholarship programs while focusing more state resources on assisting students with financial need. Second, similar to provisions within the Higher Education Efficiency Act passed by the House of Representatives last year, and recently passed by the full Senate Education Committee, it would also reduce duplicative bureaucratic regulation, which would markedly help reduce costs driven up by layers of red tape. Lastly, it would establish funding dedicated entirely to repairing our public colleges’ aging and crumbling campus facilities, infrastructure and equipment.

In sum, there is no doubt that Senate Bill 298 is rooted in fairness and shared commitment and represents the most significant step forward in higher education policy in more than a decade. The bill has drawn wide support and there is still time to pass this important legislation out of the Senate before May 9. As such, we encourage advocates of Senate Bill 298 to reach out to their respective senators over the next several days to express support.

Greater higher education access, affordability and quality is within reach. We can do no less for the students and families of South Carolina. Together, we can make this happen this year!

As published in Aiken Standard on April 18, 2019.

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