Opinion Extra

What if more poor kids went to technical college after high school?

Students work in the machine tool lab at Midlands Technical College to learn skills that SC manufacturers need. Helping more students attend technical college is the goal of promise programs.
Students work in the machine tool lab at Midlands Technical College to learn skills that SC manufacturers need. Helping more students attend technical college is the goal of promise programs. tglantz@thestate.com

South Carolina manufactures more than 400,000 BMWs each year, produces 12 Boeing Dreamliners each month and through companies such as Michelin, Bridgestone, Continental and Giti Tire makes 100,000 tires per day. And new projects are continuing to be announced.

Each new announcement brings with it the expectation of a highly skilled, ready workforce.

Last year, the General Assembly funded a pilot scholarship program for Williamsburg County residents who attend Williamsburg Technical College, designed to increase college attendance and completion by alleviating the financial burdens associated with college.

As a result of the program, which covers tuition and fees for two years, the portion of local high school graduates who enroll at Williamsburg Tech has increased from 13 percent to 30 percent in the first semester.

One such incoming student is Gabby Brown, a 2017 graduate of C.E. Murray High School who initially thought she would have to go straight into the workforce following high school to save money for college tuition, books and living expenses. Now, rather than putting off college, she is working toward an associate of science degree at Williamsburg Tech.

Tim Hardee

Comparable programs are in place and funded locally in Clarendon, Greenwood, Kershaw, Laurens, Lee and Sumter counties, where they are creating similar increases in attendance. Statewide programs have been started in some states, which pay the tuition for all community college students. Tennessee has seen the number of first-time freshman enrolled at a community or technical college climb by 30 percent in just three years.

Currently, 63 percent of South Carolinians aged 25-64 do not have any sort of post-secondary credential. For our state to meet increasing economic development and workforce demands, this needs to change drastically. Our pipeline of skilled workers must expand, and by reducing the cost of college through an expanded Promise Program, South Carolina could increase the number of post-secondary certificates, degrees and diplomas.

An educated population is one of the most important components of a vital, competitive state. Expanding the promise program will open doors for South Carolinians like Gabby, who may have thought college was not an option. When educational attainment increases, a higher per capita income results. Ultimately, greater access to education will expand South Carolina’s middle class.

Ideally, the first two years of college at any of the state’s 16 technical college would be free to all S.C. high school graduates; this would remove most arguments against continued education. However, with competing demands for limited state funds — roads, infrastructure, education, pension, etc. — a more more modest expansion is more feasible.

Two options for expanding the success of Williamsburg’s program are worth consideration: expanding it to South Carolina’s most rural (and most challenged) counties or making it available to students seeking degrees in the state’s most in-demand career fields, such as manufacturing, health care and information technology.

No matter how the program is expanded, it is essential that it does become available to more South Carolinians. A need-based scholarship such as Palmetto Promise ensures that all students, from the most academically challenged to those who easily excel in school, are afforded the opportunity to earn a post-secondary education. And that helps our state build a better educated workforce.

As we all know, success begets success. In the end, a successful workforce made possible through a promise program makes for a successful South Carolina.

Dr. Hardee is president of the S.C. Technical College System; contact him at hardeet@sctechsystem.edu.