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Breaking NewsGovernor proposes closure of USCL in budget

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By Jenny Hartley

One local state legislator said he’s not concerned about the University of South Carolina at Lancaster closing, even though Gov. Mark Sanford has proposed phasing out the successful campus beginning in 2009-10.

The Republican governor unveiled his $5.8 billion spending proposal for the next fiscal year last week.

It calls for shutting down USCL and the USC campuses at Union and Salkehatchie.

“I think he (Sanford) has done this a couple times, hasn’t he?” said state Sen. Mick Mulvaney, referring to the governor’s proposal to close USCL. “The governor’s budget is used to send a message, to draw attention to critical issues.”

The message here is not about USCL, said Mulvaney, also a Republican.

He pointed out that USCL is the fastest-growing two-year college in the state, has the best graduation rate and the best success rate for students who go on to attend other colleges.

“And it (USCL) does it with half of what USC-Sumter gets,” Mulvaney said.  

The bigger picture is the inefficiencies in higher education across the state, where much funding is wasted, Mulvaney said.

“We are not wasting it at USCL,” Mulvaney said. “I think the message is that we could do a better job at higher education. I’m not concerned about USCL closing.”

Sanford’s proposal

Sanford’s budget proposes phasing out the three USC campuses over a two-year period, “as we believe that students currently attending the under-utilized two-year campuses could access existing larger campuses in nearby communities.”

Enrollment at some of these two-year colleges is not increasing at the rate of other nearby colleges and universities, the governor notes.

For example, USC-Salkehatchie saw only 2.9 percent student growth between 2006 and 2007. Located less than 25 miles away from the Allendale campus of USC-Salkehatchie is Denmark Technical College, which has seen enrollment increase by 14.1 percent in a year, according to the governor’s budget.

USC-Union served fewer than 400 students in 2007 and 2008. It’s located within 25 miles of USC-Upstate and Spartanburg Community College.

Sanford’s proposal says that USCL is located within 30 miles of Winthrop University, two regional campuses of York Technical College, and the Pageland campus of Northeastern Technical College.

However, his budget proposal does not say how USCL has grown over the past decade. From fall 2000 to fall 2008, USCL’s enrollment has gone from 837 to 1,666 students.

“What other campus in the state of South Carolina has doubled enrollment in the same time period?” USCL Dean Dr. John Catalano said Saturday. “It is clear that this proposal must not really be about enrollments. Many of the students that our governor would have drive to Winthrop each day would not have been admitted in the first place, and, if admitted, would pay double the tuition when they arrive.”

Officials react

Sanford’s proposal prompted several calls to The Lancaster News late Friday afternoon after the story broke. The governor’s proposal drew a strong response from County Administrator Steve Willis.

“I always thought the governor was a little loony tunes, but this proves the guy is certified squirrel bait,” Willis said. “I know the governor’s budget is routinely ignored by the Legislature, but it is scary that we have a governor who cares so little about public education he would even propose such a move.”

Lancaster County Council approved extra funding for USCL and York Technical College’s Kershaw campus in 2008.

Catalano told County Council members at the time that the college is “bursting at the seams” and did not get expected state funding promised by the General Assembly during the last legislative session.

In 2007, enrollment at USCL rose 22 percent and rose into double digits again in 2008. The Legislature cut about $780,000 from USCL’s budget last year. Lancaster County appropriates 3.3 tax mills, or about $375,000, to the university.

According to WIS-TV news in Columbia, state Treasurer Converse Chellis also takes issue with the governor’s budget plan.

“The governor continues to tells us about problems that exist, then refuses to work with other state and elected officials to address them, then criticizes those who step up and offer real solutions,” Chellis said in the WIS report. “We deserve more than hollow leadership and political grandstanding. Our backs are against the wall and it is time for leadership, not rhetoric.”

First-year savings for satellite campus phase-out are about $2.4 million, according to Sanford’s budget.

More than two-thirds of Sanford’s total budget savings come from education cuts, such as $24 million from closing the three USC campuses, suspending text book purchases for a year and eliminating teacher certification bonuses.

Legislators begin meeting this week to craft the state’s next budget.

Plans for expansion

USC President Dr. Harris Pastides spoke to scholarship recipients at a November luncheon at USCL.

Pastides spoke of USCL’s expansion over time and its desire to grow even larger. He said he’d advocate for better funding for the Lancaster campus and would help prepare it to be ready when the economy recovers.

The university is moving forward with a new strategic plan, called The Blueprint for Academic Excellence, which outlines USCL’s vision and goals for the future.

The goals include:

- Expanding the number of degree programs available

- Increasing full-time faculty

- Expanding inter-collegiate athletics

- Providing housing for students

- Generating and receiving more funding

- Creating the true feel of a college campus.

USCL celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and Catalano said it should be a time for celebration. But the year hasn’t started out too well, after Sanford’s announcement on Friday, Catalano said.

He hopes county residents will rally behind USCL and urges the community to speak to officials and lawmakers about the importance of USCL and the role it plays.

“I have been told not to worry, that the governor’s budget always falls on deaf ears in the Legislature,” Catalano said. “But I know how much this campus means to this community. I have read the recent Forbes.com article that lists this community as the most at risk in the nation, in large part because we need more college-educated citizens, and I hear every day how students couldn’t have started college without the opportunities afforded by USCL. I hope that each person will spend a little time during this 50th anniversary of USCL to imagine this community without USCL and to communicate your concerns to all the people who need to hear it.”

Contact senior reporter Jenny Hartley at jhartley@thelancasternews.com or at (803) 283-1151