COLUMBIA — The University of South Carolina Aiken’s state funding gap puts it in an awkward spot: The disparity is bad but might not be bad enough.
USC Aiken receives $2,297 per student, while South Carolina’s 10-school average is $2,487. The Aiken campus is one of three institutions, along with USC Beaufort and USC Upstate, jockeying for funding parity.
Beaufort and Upstate lag dramatically, receiving per-student amounts of $940 and $1,701. The Citadel leads the pack of so-called comprehensive universities, collecting $4,304 per student.
Deidre Martin, USC Aiken’s vice chancellor for university advancement, said her institution urgently needs funding parity but acknowledged Beaufort’s disparity is “almost egregious.”
She said this is a crucial time for USC Aiken to receive its fair share of state funds because policy discussions in Columbia suggest there could be new standards, such as tying funding to graduation rates.
“The concern among all the three campuses is that we are going to be looking at performance-based funding the governor has proposed, and it creates an unfair playing field if you start off with some institutions not even at the (funding) average,” Martin said.
Advocates for parity say that historically, state legislators were unaware of the inequity. Big jumps in enrollment have made the problem more acute.
State Rep. Chip Limehouse, a Charleston Republican who heads the Ways and Means subcommittee for higher education, has indicated that bringing all three of the schools up to the average is unlikely.
He said Beaufort’s legislative delegation and campus leaders have advocated most compellingly for their campus, followed “to a lesser extent” by USC Upstate.
Rep. Bill Clyburn, D-Aiken, said he’s still optimistic. Clyburn also serves on the House Ways and Means Committee, which crafts the state spending plan after receiving subcommittee recommendations.
The lift USC Aiken is seeking is a lot lighter than USC Beaufort’s: Only $490,000 in extra funds are needed to push its per-pupil rate up to the average, while Beaufort seeks $2.2.million.
Election politics have crept in. Limehouse is one of 16 Republicans running in the March 19 GOP primary for the 1st Congressional District. The district was recently redrawn to include Beaufort County.
In addressing the funding push this month, Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, said Limehouse “is very keenly aware that we’re watching his support of this issue.”
Martin said USC Aiken has made repeated cuts in tough budget years to keep charging some of the lowest tuition in the state while keeping students’ learning experience personal.
“We’ve held on to that value even when the easier path might have been to make the classes bigger,” she said. “We’ll continue to try to find any other way to save money than to change the kind of institution we are.”