While Gov. Nikki Haley is right about the need to fund the state’s colleges and universities based on performance, that is but a step toward repairing our poorly structured higher-education system.
What we need is a board of regents, to not only tackle the funding issue but also oversee all of South Carolina’s institutions of higher learning, rather than allowing them to keep pursuing uncoordinated missions. Such a board, properly configured and empowered, could address ever-rising tuition costs, quality concerns, mission creep and duplication.
Yes, we should distribute tax dollars based on how well colleges meet their missions, rewarding them for their high graduation rates and job placements. A well-designed merit funding system could encourage colleges to improve and ensure that the ever-decreasing state funding is put to good use. Unfortunately, the Legislature has never been willing to commit to this, so a 1996 system never lived up to its promise.
During the governor’s higher-education conference last week, the president of the Washington-based American Council of Trustees and Alumni said a study by her group detected an “arms race” among South Carolina’s public colleges. That has helped create an unsustainable, competitive environment in which too many schools try to be all things to all students.
While colleges need to improve their performance and justify the funding they receive, we must do more than alter the standard funding formula. We must forge a system that provides students with the best education possible to become productive citizens who contribute to our state and society.
A board of regents can help bring that change. No longer would our loose confederation of colleges operate in their own silos, cooperating with other institutions only when it is to their advantage. A board of regents empowered to act in the interest of the entire state and all its students could vastly improve coordination and put finite state resources to their best use by making the hard decisions that we have purposely avoided.
The board would have to pick and choose, to the dismay of some of our schools. But the status quo of trying to equally fund our schools regardless of their mission and performance guarantees that we will maintain a mediocre system with few standouts. We must supplement the best programs while jettisoning those that are woefully inadequate. Some colleges will be forced to redefine and streamline their missions, and they, and we, will be better for it.
Until we take transformative action, we will never lift our higher-education system—and, above all, our students and state—from the depths of mediocrity.