Remarks to the Senate Finance Higher Education Subcommittee, February 28, 2019

Good afternoon, Chairman Peeler, Sen. Jackson, Sen. Campbell, Sen. Martin, and Sen. Scott. It is a pleasure to be with you. I would like to quickly introduce Trustees Mobley and Moody, Board Secretary Heath, our system Chancellors and Campus Deans, as well as members of my finance and administration team. These are a few of the great people who serve our students and our state day in and day out.

Mr. Chairman, I want to thank you – and the members of this committee for your leadership in supporting higher education in our state. It’s our collaborative efforts with you that have us on the brink of the most significant funding reform in higher education in almost two decades. 

I am also happy to share that we appreciate Governor McMaster recognizing USC and higher education as a significant priority in the executive budget – the first time that has happened in years. And Chairman Simrill did a commendable job improving on the Governor’s budget for higher education just last week in Ways and Means Committee.

Rest assured, we share a common goal with him, you, and most importantly, our students…and that is greater access and affordability for South Carolinians. Mr. Chairman, it’s been an exciting decade for me as President of our university, and, in many ways, my 11th year is the most gratifying. 

This year’s freshman class in Columbia is the largest and most academically talented class in our history. Across our system, the student body has grown to over 51,000, up 25 percent since 2008, and we have enrolled more South Carolinians and underrepresented students each year in Columbia (675).  And good news, we have already accepted 17 percent more African-American students for the Freshman Class of 2019. In fact, we are the state’s leader in both areas; our enrollment is up 7 percent over last year among South Carolinians, and is up 20 percent this year and 43 percent over the last two years among African Americans in the freshman class.

Sen. Jackson and Sen. Scott, I thank you both for shining a light on this vital topic – and for your relentless and respectful voices in asking us to do more. Please know that even when your flashlight may not be on, we continue to see that light and we are responding.  

Across the state, over 40 percent of all African-American students enrolled in public higher education in South Carolina attend USC. We’re among the Top 3 percent of universities in the United States for graduating African-American students. Perhaps what we are most proud of is that our graduation rate for African-American students is almost identical to their white counterparts.  There are not many universities in America where this is the case.

Our Honor’s College was again recognized as the “Nation’s Best.” Research funding is up for a fifth consecutive year to a record $258M, and our University endowment continues to grow, and has nearly doubled since 2008. We are ranked among the Top 1 percent of patent-producing universities in the world. In the past year, we’ve been recognized as #67 on Forbes’ 2018 list of America’s Best Employers. In South Carolina, we were the top University and No. 2 in the entire state.  

And this fall, we added our newest and 20th system-wide location on Hilton Head Island to support the thriving hospitality industry in the Low Country. I am pleased to report that the average student debt upon graduation at USC is far lower than both the national and the statewide average that approach $40K. At our Columbia campus alone, half of our undergraduates graduate debt free.

We’ve achieved this success through programs like “On Your Time” which stresses the importance of graduating in four years or less, and provides important savings to students and families. In addition, last fall, we established 3+2 programs with Claflin and South Carolina State to provide important pathways for students to achieve dual-bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields. This follows a cooperation agreement with Midlands Tech to transfer into our Engineering programs, as well as an earlier agreement to transfer into bachelor degree programs through our College of Education. 

Not to mention, in 2013, we created the most affordable bachelor's degree in the state, by giving our students the option to attend one of our regional campuses or another two-year option, and then finish their degree online through Palmetto College.

These latest collaborations build upon our established commitment to innovative pathways and scholarships, such as University of Possibilities, Gamecock Guarantee, and Opportunity Scholars to support first generation and low-income students. In these ways and others, we’ve tightened our belts and innovated to achieve greater savings for South Carolina’s students and families.

And now, the culmination of bipartisan discussions among Senate leaders, with a particular thanks to your leadership, Mr. Chairman, and members of this Committee, Senate Bill 298 – “The Higher Education Opportunity Act” – portends as a game-changer. The bill would establish something that has never before existed in our state: a dedicated and permanent source of funding for higher education – all without raising taxes.

Mr. Chairman, the Opportunity Act, like this committee, recognizes that there is a connection between state support and tuition prices. In fact, had the Opportunity Act been in place over the last decade, even the most conservative calculations indicate that tuition would have risen almost 40 percent slower than it otherwise did during that period of deep state funding cuts.

This bill can’t erase the past, but what it will do is capture these substantial savings – and more – for our students today and of tomorrow. In addition to modernizing the state’s scholarship offerings and helping to reduce costs driven up by layers of red tape, this bill would also establish funding dedicated entirely to repairing our public colleges’ aging and crumbling campus facilities, infrastructure and equipment.

Just a quick, but important, note on this last point.

Since the last time South Carolina passed a capital improvement bond bill for Higher Education, almost two decades ago, 11 Southeastern States have passed at least 1, with 7 having passed one in the last 3 years. North Carolina, in particular, has authorized more than $4.4 billion in capital improvement bonds for Higher Education since 2000. We need to ask ourselves: how can we compete to not only retain our state’s best and brightest students, but recruit top students and world-class faculty from across the nation if our facilities are falling apart? 

Our non-recurring budget request this year towards a new School of Medicine in Columbia speaks to this central question, as this facility will replace aging facilities that will limit our ability to attract and serve future students and the healthcare needs of our state. And across our system, facility renovations and upgrades – from the Gregg-Graniteville Library at Aiken or the Smith Science Building at Upstate – or a new facility at the USC Beaufort Campus, speak to the need for reliable and appreciable capital funding.

As I close, let me briefly remind the committee of our System’s primary recurring appropriation request, which follows the spirit of the Opportunity Act by calling for:    

A modest increase in recurring funding of 6.4 percent for FY2020, which is equivalent to early projections of growth in state revenue next year. I’d like to note here that the Ways and Means budget funds almost 95 percent of this request, and we look forward to working with you on improving that if we can. 

Mr. Chairman, our overall budget request, when coupled with your efforts, and the thoughtful and long-term reforms contemplated under the Opportunity Act, will work in concert to advance access, affordability and excellence in public higher education across South Carolina.

Thank you so much.