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December 30, 2009 7:23 PM Sisyphus in South Carolina

By Daniel Luzer

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South Carolina needs to improve its higher education system. This is according to the chairman of the state’s Commission on Higher Education. From an article in the Columbia City Paper:

For South Carolina to get out of the cellar on several generational problems - low education levels, poverty, high unemployment and more - its leaders need to make a sustained commitment to improving higher education dramatically.
“You’re really rolling the ball uphill if you have to convince the public about the value of higher education,” said Columbia lawyer Ken Wingate, chair of the state Commission on Higher Education.
Per capita income and the state’s rank in the number of people with bachelor’s degrees is about the same in 2006 as it was in 1990. Additionally, South Carolina’s public colleges and universities rank 15th out of 16 Southern states in the per student average in money that comes from state sources.

Wingate is speaking to groups across the state about his “action plan” for the Palmetto State’s economic and educational future. One goal of the action plan is to make South Carolina one of the most educated states in America. (It’s currently one of the least.)

Good luck with that. This “education will improve the economy” line is old news. Ultimately Wingate is probably entirely correct. What’s odd about this latest campaign is that it seems dreadfully so ill-timed. When so many other states are cutting higher education budgets due to funding difficulties, it’s going to be very hard to convince South Carolina taxpayers to spend more money on higher education, especially in a state where only 20 percent of the population has completed college.

The reduction in state funding for higher education is in fact part of a national trend that predates the 2009 recession. According to an article in the Daily Mississippian:

There is a joke that public universities were once state funded, now they are state assisted, [University of Mississippi administrator Larry] Sparks said. Soon they will just be state located. “The bottom line is that we’re a state supported institution but we need to become more entrepreneurial.”

It will be interesting to see if South Carolina can reverse the trend. Its current state budget provides $203 million less in funding for higher education than two years ago.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer