President Benson Addresses Tuition Hike

President Benson addressed the recent tuition hike at the College of Charleston in an op-ed in today’s Post and Courier.

In recent days, there have been several media reports on the increase in tuition at South Carolina public universities, including the College of Charleston. We welcome public scrutiny and careful examination of our tuition policies. However, because some recent articles about the College have been incomplete, I am writing to set the record straight.

First, it has been said the College of Charleston has increased tuition for the next academic year without considering the financial needs of our students. Recognizing that higher tuition poses real challenges for many South Carolina families, our Board of Trustees and senior leadership struggled with the decision to raise tuition. Our commitment of an additional $3 million to need-based and merit-based financial aid for the coming academic year and for future years is meant to partially address the affordability issue. This is a 25 percent increase in the funds the College devotes to financial aid.

A significant amount of press coverage has focused on the percentage of the College of Charleston’s tuition increase rather than the actual dollar increase or the cost of tuition as a whole. The average cost of tuition for the state’s 13 four-year public institutions is $9,958. The College of Charleston’s tuition for in-state students is $10,314. If we exclude the unique undergraduate programs at MUSC, the most costly institution in the state is Winthrop University, with a tuition of $12,176, 18 percent higher than the College’s. The second most costly is Clemson University, with a tuition of $11,908, 15 percent higher than the College’s.

South Carolinians also should consider that some public universities in the state receive a larger percentage of their budgets from the state than others, ranging from a low of 6.27 percent to a high of 21.25 percent. The College falls near the bottom of this range with only 8.5 percent of its budget coming from the state. This disparity helps explain why some universities are better able to hold down tuition increases.

For decades, we have worked to offer a superior education and to make a College of Charleston education affordable relative to our peers. This is confirmed by the latest edition of The Princeton Review, which praised our “relatively low tuition” and the “great value” of the education we offer.

Second, some have said that tuition increases at the College of Charleston have gone beyond the College’s actual losses in state support over the past decade. That’s true, and it’s true for other public universities in South Carolina. But this comparison oversimplifies the complicated financial realities facing universities today. Fixed costs at the College of Charleston have grown at a much faster rate than inflation over the past decade. For example, over the past 10 years, our institutional contribution to our employees’ health insurance has grown by over 72 percent.

Keeping pace with 21st century technology also contributes significantly to our costs. Today’s college students have grown up in wired classrooms, and their future success in our competitive knowledge economy demands that they experience a fast-paced, digital learning environment.

Simply put, as state support of higher education continues to decline and the College’s costs continue to rise, tuition must go up. The alternative is a downward spiral to mediocrity.

Third, it has been written that the College of Charleston has added staff, new buildings, and debt over the past 10 years. The erroneous suggestion is that the College has been purchasing luxuries at the expense of South Carolina students and taxpayers.

A decade ago, the College of Charleston had just completed several years of enrollment growth that increased our student body to about 10,000. (Today, we still have about 10,000 students.) After the enrollment growth of the 1990s, we had to face the fact that our facilities and infrastructure were designed for a much smaller student body. An outside consulting firm documented these very serious deficiencies in a 2003 report. The needed improvements were in the planning stages for years. Fortunately, our facilities and infrastructure are beginning to catch up with the needs of our students.

But, like most public universities in this state, the College has considerable deferred maintenance. Our maintenance is complicated by the historical significance of most of our buildings. We are entrusted with the care of these national treasures, and that duty comes with significant costs.

The College’s unique urban setting in Charleston’s Historic District carries a myriad of building and zoning restrictions that other universities do not contend with. Most South Carolinians don’t realize that the College of Charleston is the largest historic preservationist in Charleston, and we bear this burden for the good of the entire state. Our presence in the Historic District complicates everything we do, by adding to our costs and constraining our ability to grow.

Regarding the size of the College’s staff, the reported comparison between 2000 and 2010 is misleading. Following our enrollment expansion a decade ago, we found ourselves without enough staff in place to adequately serve our students. Our studies of peer institutions in South Carolina and elsewhere still find that the College has a relatively small staff and relatively low salaries.

We appreciate and welcome public scrutiny of our decisions. Discussions about our state’s educational priorities and challenges are beneficial. We ask only that South Carolinians judge us on the totality of the evidence, not on the basis of a few isolated data points. The College of Charleston is eager to be a part of this conversation.

One thought on “President Benson Addresses Tuition Hike

  1. Susan Hallatt

    Great response, Niki

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