VOTE FOR the lottery, South Carolinians were told, and smart kids will go to college for free, everybody else will get a free technical-college education, and we’ll make huge improvements in the public schools. And what the heck: a chicken in every pot and a couple of new cars in every garage and peace and goodwill toward all.
Best of all, somebody else will pay for it.
We tried to warn voters that the lottery couldn’t possibly pay for all that was promised, and that even if it could, authorizing government-run gambling still was a bad bet, because it would fundamentally change the relationship between the government and its citizens, addicting our legislators to all that free money, and turning us into marks.
So no one should be surprised to hear that one of the options legislators will consider as they try to plug the huge and growing deficit in funding for those free (but not really free) college educations is to create new “games” that will entice even more gambling by people who can’t afford to gamble.
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This is the place where we say we told you so.
The problem isn’t that the lottery never has brought in enough money to pay for the popular Palmetto, LIFE, HOPE and need-based scholarships. It’s not even that the amount of money taxpayers have to kick in keeps growing — up to $80 million of the $285 million cost next year. Those are merely symptoms of the larger problem, which makes legislators terrified to even consider reducing the size of the scholarships or increasing the requirements to get them. The problem is the way the lottery has changed our thinking.
Before the lottery, we understood that the taxpayers had to pay for education. They didn’t particularly want to pay for it, but they knew that whatever the state spent to run public schools and colleges had to come from taxpayers and, in the case of college, students.
The lottery taught us that we didn’t have to pay for education, that the suckers who gamble would pay for it instead. Most people believed this because they have no concept of how much money it takes to run the schools and colleges: about $4 billion each, per year. They have no concept of how little of that the lottery generates: about $300 million total, per year, or a little less than 4 percent.
Even if we tried to sucker even more people into wasting their money gambling (and we almost certainly will), it won’t be enough to plug that $80 million hole. And even if it were enough, it wouldn’t solve the larger problem our state has with college funding.
We’ve never adequately funded our colleges, and things only got worse after lawmakers decided that all those millions of dollars going out in scholarships were “college” funding, and scaled back on the actual funding to colleges. But that’s not college funding: Scholarships merely change the name on the check, not how much money colleges receive. So colleges had to choose between reducing the quality of their product and raising tuition. They raised tuition, driving college costs even further out of reach for everybody who didn’t have a scholarship. During the recession, lawmakers cut funding still more, and colleges raised tuition even more.
The result is that middle-class students who are able to earn and keep a merit scholarship can get an undergraduate degree without borrowing huge amounts of money. Those who can’t earn or keep a scholarship — and most LIFE recipients can’t keep it — either pile up crushing debt or else 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 can get the education they need to be productive citizens. And with each passing year, it becomes increasingly difficult for our legislators to ignore the fact that the lottery can’t accomplish either of those tasks.