Higher education lobby fails to draw Gamecock support
A small crowd of fervent Carolinians gathered on the Statehouse steps Tuesday morning to voice their concerns at the South Carolina Rally for Higher Education. Local news stations fixed their cameras to the humble podium where Ebbie Yazdani, Ryan Duane and Isaiah Nelson (the Student Body Presidents of USC, Clemson and College of Charleston, respectively) addressed the state on the dire issue of funding for public universities in South Carolina.
“We’re here to make our voices heard,” President Yazdani said. “Our state has fallen behind in making sure higher education is a priority.”
Only four USC SG representatives were present at the rally — Yazdani, President pro tempore John Cuenin, Director of Student Lobby Charlotte Harrell and Communications Director Megan Ananian — in addition to a smattering of involved USC students. Twelve students from Clemson and 11 from College of Charleston also attended. According to Harrell, SG has been coordinating the lobby since November, and while the rally’s Facebook page gained 302 attendees, little over 30 turned up on the Statehouse steps by 10 a.m. Second-year chemical engineering student Peter Rassolov, who came out to show his support for fellow USC tuition-payers, wasn’t surprised by the outcome.
“One of the best things we do is make our presence know, but I’m not very impressed with the turnout,” Rassolov said. “I think students are just busy, and student elections are going on.”
Ananian attributed the lack of involvement on poor communication and student body ignorance rather than the priority of SG elections.
“It would look better if we had more students behind us, but we’re still sending the same message,” Ananian said. “It also has a lot to do with the fact that students don’t know what’s going on. They don’t know that we’re only getting 8 to 10 percent of the funding we used to get anymore.”
During the rally, each student body president addressed budget issues in the context of the concerns of his respective university. Nelson highlighted building and renovation obstacles due to the history of College of Charleston’s campus. Duane emphasized the vital role of state contributions in Clemson’s research curriculum. And Yazdani drove South Carolina’s need for a bond bill, in which the state would issue debt to be used for university projects. He pointed out the success in this project in North Carolina, where a bond bill raised $2 billion.
“It creates jobs and gets money to the university so that tuition goes toward academics rather than building and capital projects,” Yazdani said. “That’s the position we’re stuck in. With the budget cuts we have to balance out how many programs and teachers to keep and how to maintain our buildings.”
Regulatory relief rang as an overarching theme throughout the rally. The state of South Carolina currently funds 11 percent of Clemson’s overall costs, nine percent of College of Charleston’s and nine percent of USC’s (down from 40 percent 10 years ago). Because these institutions are “publicly funded,” their tuition rates fall under control of the state, which will face some tough fiscal decisions this coming fall, with an $800 million budget hole to fill.
“Legislators want to support higher education, but it’s one of the most convenient places to make cuts,” Yazdani said. “We just have to show them that it is a priority. That’s why I wanted to make sure we came here with specific goals instead of demanding more funding. We have to be realistic.”
The joint resolution drafted by members of South Carolina universities’ student governments for the Higher Education Lobby focuses greatly on opposition of Higher Education Price Index caps — state regulations on tuition and student fees.
“We want to be allowed to run our own organizations, because each institution is unique and has different goals and different needs to be met,” Duane said.
After their final words to the press, the student lobbyists marched into the lobby of the statehouse to wait for the House and Senate to meet at noon. The group was greeted by Speaker of the House Robert Harrell, Jr., a Gamecock alumnus with a history of sponsoring legislation in support of higher education (such as the recent Higher Transparency Act and the Regulatory Relief bill), which is currently circulating in the senate. Harrell said the presence of the students in the lobbying group showed dedication and promise.
“It’s great for the students to be here,” Harrell said. “They are showing that this is a major concern. The legislature pays attention to what constituents want, and all of these student in the lobby are members of the general assembly.”
The student lobbyists spent the remainder of the afternoon meeting with legislators, including Governor Nikki Haley’s Deputy Chief of Staff. As they waited patiently outside the chambers to voice their concerns, herds of middle school and elementary school students wandered in and out of the chambers, gazing in awe at the Capitol. It is Yazdani’s hope that if the lobbyists efforts accomplished anything yesterday, these students will be afforded their opportunity at a higher education and will able to carry pride rather than bitter disappointment in their government.
“This is an issue that’s only going to grow,” Yazdani said. “Our generation has the chance to leave a legacy here for future students across South Carolina.”