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Higher Education: Definitive Course of Action Needs to Be Charted For SC - By Mark Sanford

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Spartanburg 'Herald Journal' runs Gov. Sanford Oped on Higher Ed Discussion, Privatization

By Mark Sanford

December 21, 2003 - Earlier this month, Dr. Michael Porter, a competitiveness expert from Cambridge, Mass., came to our state to unveil his Monitor Group's strategic recommendations for South Carolina's economy. One of the things that caught my attention during Porter's visit were his repeated references to the fact that schools in our state's college and university system are "trying to be everything to everybody."

According to Porter, the result has been far too much waste and duplication in the system and nowhere near enough focus on core missions that coincide with our economic development efforts as a state. Porter's recommendations for our state's higher education efforts, which I would second, include targeting our research capital in areas of emerging economic growth and building up our state's existing economic "clusters"-while looking out for opportunities to grow new clusters.

Clusters are all about focus-specifically, multiple private businesses focusing resources in a specific industry to gain a competitive advantage. Whether it's automotive, forestry or tourism-related, that means targeting resources. I think that same principle ought to apply to the dollars we put into higher education.

Unfortunately, politics-not a coherent statewide strategy-often has been the driving force in decisions relating to higher education. As a result, we currently have 33 colleges and universities operating 79 different campus locations-an unusually large number of state-supported schools given our state's small population. And as for focus-does South Carolina really need seven communications programs? Or two state-supported medical schools? Or six drama programs? Or 11 psychology programs?

These examples are a big part of the total cost of higher education in South Carolina-which currently is at 110 percent of the national average compared to 86 percent for Georgia and 82 percent for North Carolina, both states that have governing boards overseeing their schools. Just last year, South Carolina saw tuition jump 25 percent at Winthrop, 19 percent at Clemson and Coastal Carolina, 15 percent at the University of South Carolina and by varying degrees at almost every other state-supported school.

Earlier this winter, the Budget and Control Board voted to add a satellite campus to Coastal Carolina University. I objected to that decision, not because I faulted the folks who wanted it but because it wasn't part of any coherent statewide strategy. Similarly, I don't begrudge people in Beaufort who supported moving USC's satellite campus there from a two-year to a four-year school, but that move wasn't part of a coherent statewide strategy, either.

So how do we change the system?

I'll be the first to admit that I don't have a monopoly on that answer. I've always felt that we need a governing board that charts a clear course for higher education in our state-one that's driven by core needs and the resources we have available to address them. Some would call this a board of regents, others would call it a strengthened Commission on Higher Education. Whatever form it takes, we need to more efficiently and strategically spend higher education dollars, and this administration is committed to making sure that's what happens.

To that end, I'm glad our offer of privatization as an option for all 4-year state-supported colleges and universities in South Carolina has stirred the pot a bit. Some have mistaken this offer as something it wasn't-namely a strategic objective in and of itself. In fact, it was more of a tactical move, not unlike when a submarine fleet commander sends out sonar waves to determine his group's position related to various obstacles on the ocean floor. This administration will continue to throw different ideas out there as we attempt to foster a discussion of that ultimate objective of creating a more coordinated system for higher education.

Some folks will agree with those ideas, and others won't, but the fact that we're having a conversation as to that strategic direction is critical.

Our privatization offer also is a safety valve. If we waved a magic wand right now and created a board of regents, for example, some institutions may rightly say that while this is good for the state, it isn't where they want to go as a school. Would it be fair for schools that receive a comparatively small percentage of their funding from the state to have their hands completely tied? No. In outlining the need and raising possible solutions, it also was important to me that schools have other options to think about.

You'll see a lot more of our direction on higher education in both our upcoming executive budget and the next legislative session. Again, I'm not claiming to have all the answers on this issue, and I'm more than willing to listen to any suggestion that's out there.

Our only goal is to make sure that as we move forward, folks are at least considering all of the options on the table-as well as the budget realities that have brought us to where we are in the process.
Mark Sanford is governor of South Carolina.

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