A program that will pay for Greenwood County high school graduates to attend technical college this fall could become a catalyst for free tech college across South Carolina.
A statewide, $76 million proposal to pay the tuition and fees for recent S.C. high school graduates to attend technical college is off the table this year at the S.C. State House, strangled by budget constraints.
But the proposal’s supporters are trying to build momentum behind the idea through a pilot program – like the one set to begin this fall in Greenwood – and possible Senate hearings this summer or fall.
“We’ve got the bill introduced, but funding challenges are going to almost mandate that we cannot get it fully funded for next year,” said state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, one of 17 Senate Democrats sponsoring the bill. “But we do want to move forward with the concept.”
The idea is advancing this fall – with or without the state’s help – in Greenwood County, where community and business leaders have raised roughly $4.5 million for local high school graduates to attend Piedmont Technical College.
State senators could study that program’s rollout as a pilot project for the state without spending a dime.
About 470 of the 760 graduating high school seniors in Greenwood County have signed up for the “Greenwood Promise” program, according to its executive director, Kris Burris.
“We know from research and looking at other promise programs the positive impact it could have on our community,” Burris said. “We’re very much open to being able to work with our state representatives to look at the outcomes and track the data and our success.”
State senators also are eying Williamsburg Technical College in Kingstree as an additional pilot site, according to Senate Education Committee chair John Courson, R-Richland.
The Richland Republican said lawmakers don’t have an estimate of the pilot’s cost.
This year’s pressing budget demands – from public education to the state’s pension crisis – and a lack of solid data about the cost of a tech school program could delay a state-funded pilot, he said.
“I do think next year there will be a very strong probability we will do it,” Courson said. “Hopefully, if the pilot works out and it’s meritorious, we can expand it regionally and even statewide.”
Tim Hardee, president of the S.C. Technical College System, said his organization supports the idea of a pilot program.
“While it’s certainly a tight budget year, I do think at the end of the day it’s a good investment for the state,” Hardee said.
Courson said his support for the idea stems from a November 2013 University of South Carolina study that predicted the state will be short 114,000 college graduates by 2030.
The state needs 44,010 more workers with two-year degrees and 70,540 more four-year graduates before then, USC economists found.
Supporters say eliminating cost as a barrier would boost the number of students seeking degrees in S.C. technical colleges, currently 117,000.
“Unless we make it more palatable for South Carolinians to get an advanced degree, we’re going to be well short of the workforce needs for the state,” Courson said.
SC Promise Scholarship Act
Last month, 17 S.C. Senate Democrats proposed spending $76 million to make technical college free for recent S.C. high school graduates. Here’s how it would work:
▪ The program would pay any remaining tuition and fees for students whose costs are not covered by need-based grants or merit-based scholarships
▪ The program would offer a $1,500 stipend to help poor students pay for transportation, books and other expenses
▪ Eligible students must be enrolled in at least six credit hours and have earned a high school diploma or equivalent within six years of applying for the scholarship
▪ Students also must apply for federal student financial aid and maintain “satisfactory academic progress”