Coastal Carolina University officials are asking state lawmakers for an extra $3 million to stave off any cutbacks or tuition increases next year.
But if recent history offers any indication, the forecast isn’t promising.
Since 2008, state officials have slashed funding for public colleges and universities by more than $350 million. Although Coastal has seen a slight boost in state funding for two years, the gains fall far short of offsetting the $7.8 million in cuts the university saw between the 2008 and 2012 fiscal years. Overall, state support is down nearly 45 percent.
Lawmakers attribute some of those cuts to the economic struggles of the Great Recession, but they insist the trimming also has to do with the prioritization of K-12 over higher education.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sun News
Elementary and secondary education account for nearly 37 percent of the state’s general fund budget, according to public records. Post-secondary education spending makes up less than 10 percent. A decade ago, lawmakers spent nearly 14 percent of their budget on colleges.
“What we typically do in state government is we rob Peter and pay Paul,” said state Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Murrells Inlet. “We’ve been robbing higher ed to pay for K-12.”
Coastal’s governing board approved the request for the $3 million last month. Trustees have asked for the same increase for four straight years.
“If they’re going to give more money to our education, that’s the amount we’d like to get,” said Eddie Dyer, the university’s chief operating officer. “But we don’t really know what our chances are for that.”
Another tuition hike?
Should the university not receive the additional money, Dyer said there would be “some trimming in places.”
“Hopefully, we won’t have to cut any personnel,” he said. “The board will direct us either to find $3 million to trim or a combination of a trim and a slight tuition increase to cover it.”
The money would help pay for 27 faculty positions that are currently being funded by non-state sources, according to public records.
Non-renewable grants are paying for some of those positions, Dyer said. The additional state money would also allow the university to upgrade the status of some employees who for years have been classified as temporary, meaning they aren’t eligible for health insurance or retirement benefits.
“We want to do right by people,” Dyer said.
New initiatives, such as university’s marine science doctoral program, are adding to Coastal’s financial straits as well.
Coastal’s annual budget hovers around $185 million, but Dyer said about one-third of that is marked for capital projects, such as constructing buildings or paying off bonds.
“That’s not a place we can trim,” he said.
Decades ago, state funding accounted for about two-thirds of the university’s budget, Dyer said. Now that allocation falls below 5 percent, the lowest of South Carolina’s public institutions.
Despite that decline, university officials have tried to hold the line on tuition.
Coastal’s price for in-state undergraduate students remained flat for two years, but in May trustees approved a 2.89 percent, or $140 per semester, hike. Out-of-state students saw a 2.96 percent increase, or $335 per semester.
The prospect of another increase concerns students.
“It’s always that thought in the back of your head, ‘I hope I have enough to cover [it],’” said Lawrence Burgess, a 25-year-old junior.
“I didn’t realize how expensive class was here until I tried to register for some summer courses,” he said. “It was really ridiculous. … I transferred from two different schools. The last school I came from was a community college, so it was really affordable. You could pay out of pocket almost. To see the difference in that was an eye-opener for sure.”
Although Coastal’s pricetag has increased, other public universities have enacted steeper hikes for in-state undergrads.
Since 2010, Coastal’s tuition increases have amounted to less than $1,000 per year. During that same timeframe, the University of South Carolina’s tuition rose by nearly $1,400, Clemson’s jumped by almost $1,600 and Winthrop saw an increase of $1,636.
Even today, Coastal’s tuition remains nearly $700 below the state average.
“We’re being efficient with the very few dollars that we get,” Dyer said.
State leaders, board members talk
Lawmakers met with Coastal’s board for a closed-door luncheon last month.
University spokeswoman Martha Hunn said the executive session was needed to discuss legal and contractual issues, but some of those who attended say a key topic was the university’s request for $3 million.
Jay Bender, an attorney for the S.C. Press Association and an expert on the state’s open meetings policies, said the funding discussion should have taken place in public.
“If Coastal thinks it gets less money than any of the other public institutions, then I guess the question is maybe it deserves it,” he said. “There’s no legitimate reason a meeting with the delegation should have been behind closed doors.”
The nature of the meeting aside, lawmakers say they understand Coastal’s plight.
“Coastal is only asking for the minimum,” Cleary said. “They’re just asking for the basic necessities.”
But divvying up the state’s $6.5 billion budget presents many challenges. The Department of Social Services wants more caseworkers. Local governments are tired of seeing their state funding slashed. Old school buses need to be replaced.
“You’ve got a lot of people that say, ‘Well, let’s eliminate waste first,’” Cleary said. “Don’t just say, ‘I’m going to eliminate waste.’ … Tell me who you’re going to cut.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge for lawmakers will be coming up with the $1.5 billion Cleary says is needed each year to improve roads and other infrastructure.
“If we have an honest discussion of how we will pay for the roads and infrastructure in this state and we do not try to put it on the backs of the general revenue fund, then I believe that we can start funding higher ed,” Cleary said. “Not lavishly, but at least moderately so that these kids going to school don’t have huge financial loans when they come out.”
Another obstacle for local leaders is political. Outgoing representatives Tracy Edge and Liston Barfield served on the influential House Ways and Means Committee, which plays an important role in the budgeting process.
“We lost Tracy and Liston,” said state Rep. Nelson Hardwick, R-Surfside Beach. “So we don’t have anybody that serves on that [committee]. ... Hopefully, we’ll get some people.”
New committee appointments will be made next month, he said.
Hardwick, who chairs the local delegation, said most area leaders support giving Coastal more money. Whether they can actually accomplish that task is another matter.
“We hope so,” he said. “We’ll move pretty rapidly in trying to kind of catch [them] up and that sort of thing. They’ve been kind of on the low end of funding for universities for a while.”
Bracing for the future
While the state’s budget picture has gradually improved since the recession, analysts aren’t expecting dramatic changes in higher education funding any time soon.
“We have seen in recent years very limited recovery and understand that it isn’t realistic to expect full restoration,” said Julie Carullo, deputy executive director of administration for the S.C. Commission on Higher Education. “Funding since the recession that has been provided has been mostly targeted to limited initiatives at institutions.”
This means the state’s universities will have few options, and students like Daon Roberson will keep paying the price.
When his tuition rose this fall, the Coastal Carolina junior got a job and began closely monitoring his savings account.
Should he get hit with another hike next year, the 20-year-old said he would be too close to graduation to do anything but grimace and endure it.
“I’m done after next year,” he said. “So I would just stick it out.”