University of South Carolina officials describe their decision to turn summer school into a full third semester, with much broader course offerings, as a way to help students graduate early, complete a second major or repair their grade point average in order to retain their state scholarship and graduate without crushing debt.

Since four years long ago was abandoned as the standard for completing an undergraduate degree, and since summer jobs are harder to find and each additional year in college increases the cost, it just makes sense to make it easier for students to get in their coursework more quickly. It also allows the university to better utilize its resources.

Gov. Nikki Haley’s proposal to let students use state scholarship money to attend summer school makes a lot of sense as well. What matters shouldn’t be what time of year students complete courses toward graduation, but rather that they do. We hope the Commission on Higher Education will accept that plan.

In fact, we’d go further, and allow students who attend three semesters a year to collect three semesters’ worth of scholarship money rather than spreading two semesters’ worth of money over three semesters. The trade-off would be that they’d still only be eligible to receive scholarship money for a total of eight semesters.

Of course, if we really want to make higher education more affordable, we’re going to have to do more than rearrange the schedule. And we’re going to have to do more than providing the sort of accountability-based funding for colleges that the governor also is advocating. Again, that’s an excellent idea that we ought to pursue. But it’s not enough.

What we need to do is reassess how we as a state support higher education.

We’ve never adequately funded our colleges. But things got much worse after the creation of the merit-based Palmetto Fellows and LIFE scholarships. Lawmakers started looking at all those millions going out in scholarships as “college” funding, and cut the actual funding to colleges.

Since scholarships merely change the name on the check, not how much tuition colleges receive, this forced colleges to choose between reducing the quality of their product or raising tuition.

They chose the latter, driving college costs even further out of reach for everybody who didn’t get a scholarship. The recession only sped up this vicious cycle, as lawmakers cut funding still more – for a total cut of 40 percent over the past decade – and colleges raised tuition even more.

The result today is that middle-class students who are able to earn and keep a merit scholarship are able to get an undergraduate degree without borrowing huge amounts of money. Those who can’t earn or keep a scholarship – and most LIFE scholarship recipients are unable to keep them – either pile up crushing debt or else just drop out.

It is smart public policy to offer merit-based scholarships to convince our best and brightest to remain in South Carolina.

It is even smarter to make sure that all our average students are able to get the education they need to be productive citizens. And that starts with either creating a muscular need-based scholarship program or adequately funding colleges. Or both.