March 30, 2013

Higher Standards for Higher Education

When it comes to state funding, Coastal Carolina University wants to be judged on its merits, not on its political sway. That shouldn’t be too much to ask.

When it comes to state funding, Coastal Carolina University wants to be judged on its merits, not on its political sway. That shouldn’t be too much to ask.

For a few years now, Gov. Nikki Haley has been advocating for funding of the state’s public colleges to be based on their performance, rather than the current highly politicized method that relies too often on whether that college has a well-placed and friendly legislator during the budget-writing process. It would be a welcome change, particularly for CCU, which has often been unfairly passed over by lawmakers who favor Clemson or the University of South Carolina system.

It also has the added benefit of being smart when it comes to doling out public dollars.

The idea, in a nutshell, is this: The state’s schools will be judged based on a series of accountability measures, such as affordability, graduation and retention rates, efficiency, quality of education and so on. Those that perform better would be duly rewarded. Those that don’t do so well would have an incentive to improve. Leaders at CCU, which now receives less than 5 percent of its annual budget directly from Columbia, are excited about the possibility.

“There has to be some accountability,” said CCU President David DeCenzo, who met with the governor earlier this month to talk about the issue. He’s happy with the progress made so far, particularly with Haley’s support for the idea.

“She’s trying to do whatever she can do to become more efficient, to better serve the state,” he said.

Both DeCenzo and Eddie Dyer, the school’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, are confident that CCU is in a strong position compared with the state’s other campuses.

“We are at or near the top of the list for efficiency,” Dyer said last week, “as it costs less for us to produce a graduate than any other four-year school in the state, with the possible exception of one of the USC branch campuses. … Given the fact that we are very competitive with respect to performance (on a level, de-politicized playing field), we think the only way we can go is up with respect to state funding.”

DeCenzo echoed that optimism. “I think we stack up very well,” he told us.

The task now is to continue to build support and pass a bill pending in the Statehouse that would start the state down the road to accountability-based funding. Importantly, the bill also holds the promise of granting well-performing schools a greater measure of autonomy, perhaps streamlining the now-laborious, 14-16 month process of getting new buildings approved and spending permitted. That protracted timeline has been a particular frustration for CCU, which has been the beneficiary of a special local tax but has found itself with money sitting in the bank, unable to spend it without going through layers and layers of state bureaucracy.

“If it’s state money, make me do whatever you want,” DeCenzo said. “But when it’s not your money, give me the freedom to act.”

We’re not talking about a drastic transformation that would strip funding from one university and send it to another overnight. Any change would be phased in over years. Indeed, the first step identified in the proposed legislation is simply to put together a report by the end of this year that defines exactly what accountability measures would be used to grade schools. (The fight now will likely be over how those specific measures are written, and whether they’re tailored to benefit some schools over others.)

The only local lawmaker whose name is currently attached to the bill is Aynor’s Liston Barfield, a consistently strong supporter of CCU. We’d urge others to get on board. When it comes to our tax dollars, accountability is always appreciated.

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