USC advocates for historic higher education funding bill ahead of Carolina Day

USC is lobbying behind a new piece of legislation that has been garnering attention in the Statehouse in recent months.

The Higher Education Opportunity Act, which was first introduced last May by state Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Kershaw County, works to fund higher education and prevent rising costs of tuition through online sales tax revenue, potentially giving the university billions of dollars more in funding every year.

Student Body President Taylor Wright explained the importance of the bill, especially through a historical perspective. He said the bill is important because before the recession, the state funded 30 percent of the budget compared to 10 percent now.

"So it’s been a big drop, and during the recession there was a big slash in funding in all areas of course, but higher education is really the one area that hasn’t recovered, so we’re still getting funded at very minimum levels,” Wright said. “I think they’re finally realizing that there’s a direct correlation between the amount of money the state gives the university and the cost of tuition.”

While the state budget has grown consistently over the past few years, appropriations towards higher education funding have dropped since the recession, making up seven percent of the total budget in fiscal year 2018, according to South Carolina Radio Network.

The reason the Higher Education Opportunity Act is considered so promising is that it not only creates a dependable source for state funding through online sales tax revenue, but has also obtained bipartisan support in the senate and general assembly.

“It creates a sustainable, predictable pot of money that could be used for higher ed purposes, everything from infrastructure to increasing need-based grants for in-state students," USC spokesman Jeff Stensland said. "There’s also a requirement that state institutions would look to increase access for students from South Carolina.”

The bill also requires that USC freezes the cost of its tuition for a year in order to keep the increased funding, though elements of this may change further along the legislative process.

USC looks to raise awareness towards and advocate for the Higher Education Opportunity Act during Carolina Day on Jan. 30, when students, faculty and presidents from USC campuses across the state will come to the Statehouse to lobby for the bill and the university as a whole.

“We’re going to be talking about the need for additional funding, we’re going to be talking about the Higher Education Opportunity Act and why that’s important, but we also want to talk broadly about the impact of the university on the state, and how it makes it better in a number of ways,” Stensland said. “The state would be a far different place if the university were not here.”

The My Carolina Alumni Association, organizes Carolina Day, bringing together a group of advocates consisting not only of Student Government leaders, faculty, and students from the Columbia campus, but those from the various USC campuses across the state and Palmetto College.

“Really, it’s a concerted effort across the system,” Wright said.

Wright said he's excited about the prospects of the legislation and Carolina Day and passionate about what could happen as a result.

“I don’t think cost should be a barrier to getting higher education," Wright said. "If I can contribute in any way to more people being educated in our state and more people having the opportunities that I had, then I think it’s absolutely worth it.”

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