Three Democrats and three Republicans joined in the debate sponsored by the South Carolina Higher Education Commission at Winthrop University.
Rep. Nikki Haley, a Lexington Republican, said the independent boards must go so the state can better afford and manage its college system.
South Carolina needs a plan to address funding shortfalls at schools and "we need to make sure that the first thing we do is get rid of all the boards of trustees of every college and university and have everything under a commission of higher education," Haley said.
Haley shared the debate stage with fellow Republicans Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer and Attorney General Henry McMaster and three Democratic Party contenders: state Education Superintendent Jim Rex and state Sens. Robert Ford of Charleston and Vincent Sheheen of Camden.
Republican U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett's campaign said he skipped the debate to be in Washington for votes on a jobs bill.
McMaster disagreed with Haley on the state college boards. "I believe the healthy competition between schools is good," McMaster said. Still, he said schools need more coordination.
Bauer railed against ongoing construction at the state's colleges, particularly for athletic facilities.
"I continue to see building going on as if there is no financial problem," Bauer said. "I don't know if you've looked in the stands lately -- a lot of the seats are empty which historically have not been." Bauer noted college coaching pay is rising "in these tough, tough times and it doesn't lead by example."
Rex, a former college president, said the others didn't recognize the magnitude of the funding crisis for the state colleges that would require hundreds of millions to surmount 1984 funding levels. He said fixing that requires an overhaul of the state's tax system and that should start with raising the nation's lowest cigarette tax.
A proposal to raise the tax to 30 cents a pack is not nearly enough. He said the tax needs to be raised to the national average, $1.34 a pack, to generate more than $240 million for health care and education.
While Rex won applause for calling for the cigarette tax increase, so did Haley for questioning the need to raise revenue to cover education. "It's not what you pay in, it's how you spend that matters," Haley said. She said a cigarette tax increase would only be a Band-Aid.
Bauer said the state must do more to get parents engaged in education. Rex agreed that's a problem, but said it would require "a vaccination that turns a bad parent into a good one. And if you do (have one) don't keep it a secret; I would love to have one. This is a problem for the entire nation, not just South Carolina."
Education wasn't the only topic of the evening, however.
Sheheen said the state needs to take a bigger role in alternative energy.
Ford has persistently said he's unlikely to win the nomination, but told the crowd he was the strongest candidate on the stage. He said the state's revenue problems can be handled with more gambling revenue and an expansion of the movie industry.