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Outlying USC campuses vital

June 10, 2013 

The recent discussion regarding the closing of some of our outlying University of South Carolina campuses, such as Lancaster and Union, concerns me.

It is pretty easy to put a financial number on a facility and determine that by cutting back or closing, it money is saved. I think the real issue here is what a decision of this magnitude will have on those communities and on the young people who reside in or near those communities.

When you look at rural South Carolina where poverty runs rampant, it is a whole different scenario than in the capital city. There are very few educational options for students beyond high school.

Many who live in Allendale and other outlying communities are the first in their families to ever attend college. I recently heard USC President Dr. Harris Pastides say that the gap between no college education and a two-year college degree is monumental.

It can mean the difference between a job with growth potential, a retirement plan and health benefits versus a job that pays a minimum hourly wage with no benefits and a very limited future for growth.

With only 23 percent of the adult population in South Carolina, 18 years and older, having earned a four-year degree, having higher education attainable for these residents is a must.

These schools give local students a hope for a better future and an opportunity for a better education right in the community where they reside. This is true not only for high school students but also for younger students in elementary school.

It gives them something tangible to strive for as a student. However, the chances of those same students enrolling in the Columbia campus or traveling 50 miles to the closest technical college are slim at best.

In addition, the influence of these schools goes beyond the classroom and earning degrees. They better the community through their libraries, cultural performances and programs to engage and enhance the residents.

These schools bring communities together.

Even though we are going through tough economic times, let’s not throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. Higher education is the stepping stone for our future work force and yes, our future economy.

Public education in South Carolina has been dismal for years, and I applaud the work of state Superintendent of Education Jim Rex’s effort to raise quality and overall standards for students so they can learn in a better environment and learn from teachers that have all the tools necessary to teach effectively.

But to now reduce the opportunities for extended education beyond high school, particularly in low-income communities, would be a mistake. We have to be sensible with our resources, and I realize that tough decisions must be made in state government with regard to costs and budget shortfalls.

However, the last thing I would do is close any college campus in an outlying area. The minimal savings (less than 1 percent of the state’s higher education budget) that would occur would pale in comparison to the devastation it would have on these rural communities, and it will send a strong message to its young residents and also older working residents that want to go back and continue their education: “We don’t think getting an education beyond high school is that important.”

We already have one corridor of shame with our public schools in the Interstate 95 corridor. Let’s not create a second corridor of shame for higher education, because to me, it will mean we are headed in the wrong direction.

Tom Keith of Columbia is president of the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina. The foundation is a $90 million grantmaking organization.

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