Federal government claims state shortchanged SC State nearly half-a-billion dollars

Published: Sep. 26, 2023 at 7:41 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The federal government claims South Carolina owes nearly half-a-billion dollars to its only public, four-year HBCU, South Carolina State University.

It said SC State, an 1890 land-grant university, is supposed to receive funding equitable with South Carolina’s original land-grant university, Clemson University, but that has not happened for at least the last three decades, to the tune of a $469,956,832 shortfall.

US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack sent a letter last week to Gov. Henry McMaster, imploring South Carolina to fix this disparity.

South Carolina is one of 16 states whose governors received these letters, and in total, the federal government says land-grant HBCUs in those states have been shortchanged more than $12 billion over the last 30 years.

“South Carolina State University, the 1890 land-grant institution in your state, while producing extraordinary graduates that contribute greatly to the state’s economy and the fabric of our nation, has not been able to advance in ways that are on par with Clemson University, the original Morrill Act of 1862 land-grant institution in your state, in large part due to unbalanced funding,” the secretaries wrote.

The reality is that while the governor makes recommendations on how South Carolina’s money should be spent in his annual executive budget, they are simply that: recommendations.

The people who control the state’s purse strings are the lawmakers on the two budget-writing committees in the legislature, the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee.

“While there have been some strides made as far as funding South Carolina State, we are nowhere near where we ought to be,” Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D – Orangeburg, said.

Cobb-Hunter sits on the Ways and Means Committee and its Higher Education Subcommittee, and her district includes SC State’s campus.

She wants the General Assembly to take a closer look at funding disparities across the board at colleges and universities and then make budgeting more equitable.

“You think about the products of these institutions, in spite of inadequate funding, it begs the question: What could these institutions do with resources, with adequate resources?” Cobb-Hunter said.

In their letter to McMaster, Vilsack and Cardona wrote, “The longstanding and ongoing underinvestment in South Carolina State University disadvantages the students, faculty, and community that the institution serves. Furthermore, it may contribute to a lack of economic activity that would ultimately benefit South Carolina. It is our hope that we can work together to make this institution whole after decades of being underfunded.”

McMaster responded that he pushes for ample funds for state schools in his annual budget requests to the legislature.

“It’s always a squeeze because they always need more money,” he said.

The governor said the state tries to promote projects to boost schools’ educational power as well, naming SC State’s work as part of a research group with other public South Carolina and Georgia universities at the Savannah River National Laboratory in Aiken County.

“Those kind of things bring millions of dollars in research power to these schools,” he said. “We do those kind of things that are outside of the regular budgeting process.”

In a statement in response to the letter, SC State President Alexander Conyers acknowledged the progress the state has made in recent years to increase its funding, including record allocations in the last three budget cycles, but said there is still more work to be done for it to remain competitive.

“We have made lawmakers aware of the many urgent needs we have at SC State, and we will continue to work with the General Assembly toward realizing the necessary funding,” Conyers said.

Cobb-Hunter also noted many HBCUs are anticipating a potential rise in applications and enrollment following the US Supreme Court’s overturn of affirmative action this year, which she said makes this call for funding equity even more imperative.

Cobb-Hunter said she appreciates the Biden Administration bringing attention to these disparities, but she worries the call will fall on deaf ears in the Republican-dominated State House.

“The state should not kill the message because of the messenger,” she said.

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