The Daily Gamecock

USC officials weigh higher education reform

Provost: Financial aid overhaul needs evaluation

President Obama’s promise to make college more affordable may have received standing ovations from debt-ridden students, anxious parents and outraged Occupy protestors, but his plans have raised concerns for higher education officials in South Carolina.

In an address at the University of Michigan Friday, Obama announced his plan to control college costs by allocating and redistributing $10 million in federal funding — in the form of Perkins loans, work-study jobs and supplemental grants to low-income students — based on schools’ efforts to limit tuition increases. He issued a warning to universities, saying, “if you can’t stop tuition from going up, then the funding you get from taxpayers each year will go down.”

This poses a challenge for administrators at four-year public colleges, where in-state tuition has increased at a national average of 8.3 percent this fall. USC had a smaller tuition increase at 3.9 percent, but at $10,168, its in-state tuition is highest among public schools in the SEC.

“We don’t know what effect this would have until we know how they will measure ‘cost,’” said Michael Amiridis, USC provost. “It depends on whether they’re comparing apples to apples or apples to oranges.”

The question to which Amiridis referred is whether the proposed law would look at listed tuition or the amount of tuition that students actually pay. According to data from the Office of Student Affairs and Academic Support, state scholarships, including HOPE, LIFE, and Palmetto Fellow, combined with need-based grants, totaled over $47 million in 2011, a $9.1 million increase from 2005. These scholarships, in combination with university scholarships, cover nearly 70 percent of the average student’s tuition, Amiridis said. Both the numbers of and dollar values of these awards, which are the state’s main mode of support for higher education, have continued to rise. Palmetto Fellows awards alone increased 59 percent, and the dollar value of those awards increased 89 percent, according to the Office of Student Affairs.

In comparison, federal aid, including Parent PLUS loans, accounted for over $222 million of the university’s revenue in 2012. According to Amiridis, withholding this aid would be troublesome as the university scrambles to cut costs while trying to control tuition increases. Recent efforts have included cutting less popular degree programs, including Italian and several masters programs, halting faculty merit salary increases, not refilling positions and reducing the university’s facilities staff. Amiridis also pointed out that complying with federal regulations itself takes monetary effort.

“We look at cutting everywhere we possibly can before proposing any increases to the board of trustees,” Amiridis said, and added that tuition for the 2012-2013 academic year will be finalized in July.

A second aspect of Obama’s proposed legislation, which still awaits congressional approval, would also hold states accountable for cost-containment. The financial aid overhaul would award $1 billion to states that make an effort to curb higher education costs in a “Race to the Top” program.

However, given South Carolina’s repeated refusal to accept federal stimulus money (Sanford turned down $700 million for education funding in 2009 and Nikki Haley rejected funding for health care reform), administrators aren’t sure how much collaboration to expect. But Vice Provost Helen Doerpinghaus says the university is more than willing to accept a hand.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Doerpinghaus said. “I hope the state seriously considers the challenges our families face.”