The Daily Gamecock

Column: Universities need more than just state money

 University President Bob Caslen stands at a podium and gives a speech to the crowd.
University President Bob Caslen stands at a podium and gives a speech to the crowd.

The General Assembly needs to properly fund higher education, but more state money won’t fix South Carolina universities’ core problem by itself. 

It’s springtime in South Carolina, which means the state legislature is working on the annual state budget. If all goes according to plan, then the legislature will send it to the governor sometime in May, after the House and the Senate have each agreed on the funding bill.  

USC is directly impacted by this process, because it determines how much funding the university will get from the state.

Each year, the president or finance director of each state university presents its budget request to a subcommittee of the House and the Senate and asks for as much funding as it can get away with. After this subcommittee puts together a budget package, it works its way into a larger full committee, then to the entire House or Senate chamber, then to a conference committee and, eventually, to the governor’s desk.

It’s a long and detailed process, but regardless of how the budget as a whole turns out, one thing is certain: It won’t fund higher education enough.

After 2008, legislators in South Carolina cut state funding for colleges and universities in half. Despite the fact that it’s been more than a decade since this budget cut, state funding for USC is currently still lower than it was in 2008. This is directly connected to the rise in tuition costs.

When the state money dries up, universities shift the cost onto students and their families.

The refusal to fund higher education puts college and university officials in a tricky position: They have to raise money privately because the state government won’t provide it, but tuition raises are obviously unpopular.

One solution is an increased dependency on out-of-state students. These students pay higher tuition than in-state students, and since they don’t vote in South Carolina's elections, South Carolinian state legislators don’t have to worry if they complain about the high cost.

This way of privately funding higher education, whether it’s though out-of-state students or other fundraising strategies, runs completely contrary to the idea that education should be a public good. 

Since schools are so dependent on private money for staying afloat, they have to extract as much money from their students as possible. This dynamic means that universities have to change their relationship with their students – instead of being an active and essential part of the university, they become customers. 

In this vision of a university, students are separated from the university itself. The school is selling a product (classes and a degree) to a paying customer (the student).

More state funding would help alleviate this problem, but it wouldn’t completely fix it. Universities have structured themselves according to this model; it’s shown by everything from administrations’ lack of accountability to expensive amenities meant to attract students. 

Ultimately, it results in a higher education system that is a private commodity instead of a public good. Students feel this effect the most. Since college is so expensive, students often have to think of college as an investment that will pay off with a better job or higher wages.

Even subjects such as history and English have to justify themselves this way, by saying their discipline can lead to good careers. It’s true, but it shouldn’t matter. One’s education should not have to be useful to future employers for it to be worthwhile – education is good in and of itself.

This problem will continue as long as people have to sell their labor-power to employers in order to make a living. Right now, education has to be economically valuable unless you’re already wealthy because you’re going to have to make money off it somehow.

This year, the General Assembly probably won’t come to its senses and completely fund state colleges – but even if it did, it wouldn’t fix the root problem with our higher education system.