It's time for a tuition timeout

Coaches call a timeout to change the course of the game. As the president of the University of South Carolina, I am calling for a "tuition timeout" to change the course of state funding for higher education.

In good faith, USC offers to freeze tuition. In return, we ask our state Legislature to provide us with state funding equal to last year's tuition increase and cover any mandatory benefit increases. This is the first step toward finding a long-term solution that could potentially tie funding to performance, rewarding those colleges who excel in graduating, retaining and preparing their students to join our state's economy.

On Wednesday, Feb. 5, I will join students, parents and alumni for Carolina Day at the Statehouse. We will be urging state legislators to support a tuition timeout and make a commitment to finding a new method to adequately fund higher education in South Carolina.

In 2008, I became president of USC at the same time the economic downturn was taking hold. Within a span of three years, the General Assembly had to reduce our state funding by half, slashing public dollars to just 10 percent of USC's annual budget. So we did what all South Carolina taxpayers did during these difficult times: We tightened our belt.

USC made strategic cuts to programs that weren't vital to students, outsourced when possible and became more efficient. In fact, U.S. News & World Report ranks us as one of the 15 most efficient universities in the country, even though we rank far lower in financial resources available. But ultimately we had to raise tuition in order to offset state funding losses. However, continued tuition increases are no longer sustainable for our students, parents and taxpayers. We have reached a critical tipping point.

In good faith, USC offers to freeze tuition. In return, we ask our state Legislature to provide us with state funding equal to last year's tuition increase and cover any mandatory benefit increases.

Despite these challenges, USC is thriving. More students want to attend our university than ever before and the caliber of our students is increasing. We are proud 40 percent of bachelor's degrees awarded at South Carolina public institutions come from USC, and we are committed to maintaining our more than 200-year-old tradition of educating the next generation of Palmetto State leaders.

South Carolina's economy is on the rebound and USC's Moore School of Business predicts strong growth for 2014. On more secure footing, our state's leaders have the opportunity to reassess their funding priorities.

Higher education is certainly one of the greatest economic drivers in our state and USC provides a $4.1 billion economic impact in South Carolina annually. According to the Moore School, every dollar spent by the state on higher education could boost South Carolina's annual economic activity more than 25-fold. That is a demonstrable return on investment.

Kiplinger's and Princeton Review rate USC a best value in public colleges and we are committed to continue providing value to residents of South Carolina. We ask the Legislature to be our partner in this effort by helping to ensure tuition remains affordable for our in-state, undergraduate students.

If the General Assembly agrees to appropriate funds equivalent to a three-percent increase in tuition and to cover any mandatory increases like state employee pay raises and health-insurance premiums, USC will commit to holding tuition steady. By supporting a tuition timeout, our elected leaders can provide much-needed certainty to our state's Carolina families by locking in current tuition rates for next year.

Tuition timeout is an opportunity for South Carolina to be a leader on the issue of higher education funding. With the support of our elected leaders and the community, there is no limit to what we can achieve.