[caption id="attachment_894" align="alignleft" width="109" caption=" Ken Wingate"][/caption]
By Andy Brack
For South Carolina to get out of the cellar on several generational problems â€“ low education levels, poverty, high unemployment and more â€“ its leaders need to make a sustained commitment to improving higher education dramatically, two state higher education leaders say.
â€œYouâ€™re really rolling the ball uphill if you have to convince the public about the value of higher education,â€ said Columbia lawyer Ken Wingate, chair of the state Commission on Higher Education.
Wingate and the CHEâ€™s executive director, Dr. Garrison Walter, have been speaking to civic clubs and the media across the state to highlight an â€œaction planâ€ that seeks to push South Carolina forward economically. (See the plan online: http://www.che.sc.gov/HigherEd_ActionPlan.htm)
Walter said the Palmetto State needs to focus more on the growing knowledge economy, which means an increased emphasis on higher education. If more South Carolinians have college degrees, theyâ€™ll earn more money.
â€œWe have a lack of public priority focus and a lack of public focus on higher education.â€ he said. â€œOur state is far behind economically and weâ€™re not catching up.â€
For example, per capita income and the stateâ€™s rank in the number of people with bachelorâ€™s degrees is about the same in 2006 as it was in 1990. Additionally, South Carolinaâ€™s public colleges and universities rank 15th out of 16 Southern states in the per student average in money that comes from state sources. In the current state budget, funding is down $203 million from two years earlier to $555 million.
Wingate said CHE has a strategy to make higher education a public priority for South Carolina. Three goals include:
Â· Raise education levels. About 22 percent of S.C. adults have at least a bachelorâ€™s degree. The goal is to have 30 percent by 2030 â€“ a so-called 30-by-30 goal.
Â· Increase research and innovation. By creating new pathways to learning and technology, the state will create more of a culture of discovery, which should increase personal income.
Â· Improve workforce training and educational services. Such a goal would align educational programs with important state clusters and connect adults with higher education in more flexible ways.
Wingate said several of the priority recommendations would cost little or no money. Examples: Enacting â€œregulatory reliefâ€ to allow colleges and universities to cut red tape from hiring, procurement and facility enhancement; strengthening ties between technical colleges and universities; strengthening services to give more value; and creating a cost reduction committee to promote and share best practices among institutions.
Other measures would cost more, particularly increasing state funding and borrowing through the stateâ€™s bonding power. Other ideas: compulsory high school attendance through age 18; improving library funding; better marketing of college opportunities; and predictable capital funding streams.
At this point, itâ€™s unclear how much an increased financial commitment to higher education will cost, Walter said. The Commission is working with college presidents to develop a funding plan.
But he said it likely will have two characteristics: restoring past budget cuts to increase higher educationâ€™s share of state funding and phasing in restorations due to the stateâ€™s economic situation.
â€œWe appreciate that the state has many needs and that many have suffered as a result of the current recession,â€ Walter said. â€œOn the other hand, if the state doesn't invest in higher education soon, it will fall further behind the rest of the nation and be ever more vulnerable to economic downturns.â€
Wingate said that instead of declining state financial support, colleges and universities â€œhave got to find the political mettle to make higher education not only an add-on to the state budget but the key to economic prosperity,â€ Wingate said.
If higher education can become a state priority, studies show individuals will earn twice as much over their lifetimes, the state will add billions to its gross state product and South Carolina will generate almost 45,000 permanent jobs, Wingate added.
â€œIf people donâ€™t believe education, including higher education, is important, we canâ€™t possibly make the progress we need.â€
So what will it be, Legislature? More of the same on the bottom or a cupful of courage to take a new path that invests in South Carolinaâ€™s people? The choice is obvious. Now itâ€™s time to get to work.
Andy Brack, publisher of Statehouse Report, can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.