Give higher education a boost

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Farm Forum

College students might have something to smile about when classes start next year.

A one-year freeze on tuition and mandatory fees at the state’s public universities is in the works, and if approved by the Legislature, it could represent more than a nice back-to-school gift next fall.

It could be the catalyst for a new era of higher education funding in this state.

First things first. The South Dakota Board of Regents would freeze tuition for a year if Gov. Dennis Daugaard and the state Legislature agree to add $6 million to the state’s fiscal year 2015 budget. The money would offset costs of salary and operational funding increases on the campuses for a year, allowing the regents to freeze tuition for South Dakota students.

It’s a good idea, and a proposal the governor and Legislature should accept. Other states are doing the same thing, realizing how costly college education has become for students. In this state, for example, tuition and fees have risen 92 percent during the past 10 years, with annual increases in recent years ranging from 4 percent to more than 10 percent.

But we have even higher hopes than just a one-year reprieve from rising tuition costs. If legislators decide this is a one-time thing, the burden on students will be magnified in subsequent years as they are asked to fund even higher annual increases. That’s one step forward and two back.

We believe this tuition freeze could set the Legislature on a long-needed course to dramatically increase public spending on higher education in the state.

Lawmakers should take this opportunity to look with fresh eyes at their philosophy in funding higher education. Use the $6 million addition to set a new base for higher education funding and grow the total each year from there.

South Dakota has a budget surplus this year, so it’s a good year to propose this. But the truth is that there is money to do it every year. It’s a matter of will and priorities.

For too long, education funding has come at the end of state budget discussions. Witness the comment from Sen. Deb Peters, chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, when asked about the regents’ proposal earlier this month.

While acknowledging that ever-increasing tuition rates could price ‘‘regular-income families out of the market, let alone low-income families,’’ Peters went on to say that there are other agencies and funding needs beyond higher education.

‘‘If we have any money left over at the end of the budgeting process, we’ll try to target where we can get the best bang for the buck, and where it’s needed most,’’ she said.

We believe that philosophy is backward. Education should begin — not end — the annual budget discussion. Start by adequately funding K-12 and higher education, and then work through the many other important needs.

From scholarship programs and residency expansions to faculty training and building upgrades, the six public universities are in need of financial help.

We must invest in our higher education system if we want top-level research and training programs in our universities. That is how we help assure quality employment opportunities in South Dakota in the future.

It won’t happen without a shared vision for higher education, and this action to freeze tuition one year should be a key step toward achieving that goal.

— Sioux Falls Argus Leader