Lawmakers should look at higher education as an investment, rather than a cost, since South Carolina's future depends on a more educated workforce, a former Democratic governor and Republican state treasurer told senators last week.
"That's the kind of investment the business community likes — a safe bet and a quick, positive return," Ken Wingate, former treasurer and former chairman of the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education, told the Senate Education Committee.
Just over half of the new jobs created over the next 15 years are expected to require more than a high school education. By 2030, South Carolina faces a shortage of roughly 115,000 workers who hold at least an associate degree, according to a study commissioned by the Competing for Knowledge initiative, which is spearheaded by business leaders.
"We need to do a better job of helping those who start college to finish college, and we need to move more people who are finishing high school and think that's good enough to either get a certificate or a two- or four-year degree," said former Gov. Jim Hodges. Both he and Wingate are members of the South Carolina Business Leaders Higher Education Council.
A serious shortfall
Jobs requiring a bachelor-or-higher degree accounted for 60 percent of the study's projected shortfall.
Currently, just one in four South Carolinians over age 24 holds at least a bachelor's degree, ranking the state 39th nationwide, according to the U.S. Census.
Avoiding the projected shortfall will require 2,600 additional students yearly graduating with associate degrees and 4,150 additional students graduating with bachelors' and higher degrees, according to the study.
"The truth is, we need more of all of them. It's not one or the other," Hodges said of all higher education levels, including non-degreed professional certifications.
What fields students pursue also matters, said Joseph Von Nessen, a research economist at the University of South Carolina and a co-author of the study.
"We need to steer people toward the STEM fields," he said of jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Fields in need of workers
Health care jobs in general are and will increasingly be in high demand. The single biggest shortfall is expected in nursing jobs that currently require an associate degree but could require a bachelor's in the future, he said.
Another high-shortage field is teaching, from preschool through 12th grade. Shortages in the computer and engineering fields need workers with various levels of post-high school education, depending on the job, he said.
If South Carolina doesn't produce a more educated workforce, the state will suffer, Von Nessen said.
"We want to be training South Carolinians to be able to take the jobs in fields that are in high demand," he said. "If we don't, that makes us less attractive as a state and makes it harder to recruit companies here and makes citizens less employable."
Funding down 40 percent
How to make it happen is another matter.
Hodges' suggestions included tying any increase in state funding to a college's tuition cost, to keep students' costs down. Wingate believes the biggest systemic challenge is to get the state's public colleges to collaborate rather than compete, saying that would be an "extremely large step forward."
Senate Education Chairman John Courson (R-Columbia), said the legislature must increase spending in higher education.
"Every dollar we spend is an investment in today and the future," he said.
He noted the legislature's direct, general fund spending to the state's 33 public colleges and technical schools has shrunk by 40 percent — to a collective $450 million — since the pre-recession high in 2007-08. That doesn't include state-paid scholarships, largely funded by the lottery, which students can use at public or private colleges. That tallies more than $300 million, according to data from the Commission on Higher Education.
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