BY BRAD CARLTON SISKState politicians have been busy lately congratulating themselves for the 12-point boost in South Carolina's SAT average, even though the state still has the lowest average nationwide. Gov. Jim Hodges, among others, seized on the news to claim that the figures "prove our focus on education works."
But hardly anything was said about a study released at the same time by Grassroots Leadership, based out of Charlotte, N.C. The study revealed that South Carolina's per capita spending on prisons has risen 20 percent in the last decade while spending on higher education dropped 15 percent.
The study also reported that the state spends nearly three times as much to incarcerate a prisoner than it does to educate a student. Don't think that these figures are unrelated.
As a Justice Policy Institute report has noted, "Prisons and universities generally occupy the portion of the state's budget that is neither mandated by federal requirements nor driven by population such as Medicare or K_12 education. Because they dominate a state's discretionary funds, prisons and universities must `fight it out' for the non-mandated portion of the state's budget."
Sure enough, the Grassroots Leadership study showed nearly a dollar-for-dollar trade-off between spending once allocated for higher education and that which was given to corrections, primarily for building and operating nine new prisons over the 10 years the study was conducted.
How could any government have such priorities?
Primarily, it seems, because of rampant attitudes that the way to handle social problems is to find a group of people to blame and stick it to them. But educational programs and rehabilitation have proved vastly more cost-effective in dealing with crime than mere punitive restraint.
Another study, by the Rand Corporation, has shown that for every dollar invested in treatment, the criminal justice system saves $7.
After all, as much as it may titillate us to demonize those who commit crimes, no one can deny that crime is very often directly linked to poverty, which is itself the result of unemployment and low-wage jobs, which are both in turn exacerbated by increasingly expensive higher education.
It is no coincidence that as soon as unemployment began to decline nationwide, crime fell along with it. Likewise, if more people could afford to go to college, crime would decrease even more.
Of course, crime reduction is neither the only nor the most compelling reason to step up support of higher education. As it is, only the wealthiest families can afford the astronomical costs of college without assuming crippling debts. And since college expenses increase at an exponentially faster rate than average job wages, it is now harder than ever for students to work their way through school.
Consequently, young people from wealthy backgrounds continue to have the pick of the better jobs, while the poor are either shut out or driven deeper into debt.
Colleges, then, have become elitist institutions that restrict opportunities instead of creating them. They reinforce the inequalities that keep the gap between the rich and the poor growing, when their mission should be to provide equal access to the benefits of higher learning, restricted only by academic never economic criteria.
We hear so often in this election year that most other developed nations are way ahead of us in providing some form of universal health care. Yet we're hardly ever told that the United States is also just about the only such nation that does not provide tuition-free college education to its citizens.
One likely reason: our university presidents and directorates profit handsomely from a system that caters to big spenders, in much the same way that insurance companies and physicians do.
Meanwhile, legislative yahoos can divert funds into tough-guy programs such as building prisons and missiles. Or they might provide popular yet cosmetic tax cuts that benefit most those who need them least (read: themselves and likely campaign contributors).
Of course, politicians talk a lot about improving education, although they usually sidetrack our attention by citing statistics of success rates on this or that standardized test. But the whole point of these tests is to find out whether students meet knowledge standards appropriate for college. What good does that do if no effort is put into raising standards for college itself?
Besides, it stands to reason that increased college funding can only enhance student achievement in grades K_12. If merit instead of money were the primary factor in determining who gets to go to college, more kids would work harder earlier to meet academic admissions standards.
More impressive than a 12-point boost in the state SAT average would be an average 12-position rise of South Carolina colleges in the U.S. News & World Report's survey of top public universities. As it is, none of our 33 state-assisted colleges ranks in the top 25.
Nor is this a regional trend: our neighbors on the Southeast coast Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia average two universities apiece on the list. In the same survey's list of the 50 best universities in the country, public or private, there is no South Carolina school to be found. This is the legacy of our stingy, prison-happy state legislators.
It is time to recognize the obvious: there is a direct link between government subsidization and the quality of higher education. University funding crises not only lead to soaring tuition costs but also to cutbacks in resource availability and faculty and staff salaries.
To generate funds, most colleges have lowered admissions standards to enroll more students than they have facilities and resources to accommodate. Inevitably, instructors' expectations for student performance, along with the overall level of academic excellence, have plunged dramatically, as any veteran professor will tell you.
This is a nationwide catastrophe, but the situation in South Carolina is especially acute. With or without a lottery, all South Carolinians should demand that their legislators take immediate action to reverse the damage they have done.
Brad Carlton Sisk is a freelance writer, critic, and Spartanburg Herald-Journal music correspondent from Cherokee County.