- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 8, 2018

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A bill that spells out just what South Carolina lawmakers and higher education officials need to make sure students and schools get the funding they need was introduced Tuesday by a Democratic senator, who knows it has no chance of passing with just two days left in the General Assembly’s session.

Sen. Vincent Sheheen said the point of his bill, which he’s been working on for months already, is to put higher education funding front and center once lawmakers return to the capitol next year.

“The reason why I introduced it today was so that in the offseason while we’re out of session, we could hold hearings on it, fine-tune it, get the support we need so that when we come in in January, we hit the ground running and pass it,” Sheheen said.

Sheheen said his Higher Education Opportunity Act would require lawmakers to increase financial aid for students coming out of public colleges deeply in debt.

“It’s not fair to families and it’s not good for the state. So this act’s main focus is to control the tuition and bring it back in line with what people can afford,” Sheheen said.

It also would establish dedicated funding streams; requiring, for example, that higher education funding rise and fall at the same rate as general fund revenues, so that schools and students don’t suffer more cuts than other state programs.

It would restore the Higher Education Opportunity Trust Fund, and then protect it from being raided for other purposes. It also requires the General Assembly to permanently transfer $24 million in educational endowments to the fund, along with amounts equal to what flows into the fund from education lottery revenues, and direct certain sales tax revenues to the fund.

“We’ll do what the South Carolina government should do by funding them in a fair manner,” the Camden Democrat said.

In exchange, once the fund’s balance reaches $125 million, then the schools must freeze tuition and fees for in-state students for a year, and hike them by no more than 2.75 percent thereafter as an incentive for colleges to recruit in-state students.

The bill also provides for at least $25 million in infrastructure funding, with a fourth of that dedicated for technical schools, and at least 40 percent of the capital reserve fund each year would go to the Higher Education Facilities Repair and Renovation Fund.

Sheheen’s proposal addresses a Student Bill of Rights recently developed by the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education. Its chairman, Tim Hofferth, praised Sheheen for bringing attention to “the need to increase access and improve affordability” for state residents, and promised to work with all stakeholders on the proposal.

“With this new funding, our public universities will be able to further enhance access and affordability for South Carolina’s high school graduates,” University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides said.

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