July 8, 2019 will be recognized as the day a 21-year old promise was finally achieved, at least for one South Carolina county.
On this date Midlands Technical College and the Fairfield County School District formed a partnership that would give the county’s high school and GED graduates free technical college tuition.
The Fairfield County Promise Program will cover the cost of tuition and fees not addressed by state and federal financial assistance. This is good news for a county that has been hammered by bad economic news, the most recent being the abandoned construction of two nuclear power plants in 2017.
Officials hope that this free tuition program will benefit the local economy as well as students.
This was also the hope back in 1998 when free technical college tuition was part of the education campaign promise largely responsible for the upset gubernatorial victory of Jim Hodges. Mr. Hodges had a vision of creating a state lottery, modeled after Georgia’s, that would provide financial aid to South Carolina students pursuing higher education, including free technical college tuition.
The following year the state legislature agreed to put a referendum on the ballot to give the voters the opportunity to show their support for changing the state’s constitution to allow for a state lottery.
The lottery referendum passed in 2000 but the allocation of the funds had not been decided. Higher education interests began fighting for their share.
In a May 2001 message to legislators, the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce chairman, Tim Wilkes, made the economic case for free technical college tuition, writing that “providing free technical college tuition with lottery funds would boost our economy by giving our small businesses the trained workers they need to grow. This means more jobs and better wages for South Carolinians.”
Competition for the new funds turned out to be too strong. The legislature approved only enough lottery funding for technical colleges to cover 90% of the tuition for its students taking at least six credit hours.
Unfortunately, the legislature has continued to walk away from the free technical college tuition promise the public thought it had voted for all those years ago. Today, only about 55% of tuition and fees for an eligible technical college student is covered by the lottery funds unless they are in certain targeted programs.
However, the promise of free technical college tuition has now been revived by the leadership of the Fairfield County School District and Midlands Tech.
Fairfield County Administrator Jason Taylor understands what this will mean for his local economy. He believes that “an educated work force will also be the best way to attract new employers” to his community and “create great jobs” in Fairfield County.
But it’s not just Fairfield County with a skilled work force problem. This is one of the biggest issues facing small businesses across South Carolina and nation.
Our economy depends on successful small businesses, those with fewer than 50 employees, that employ over half of all workers. Small businesses are responsible for most net new jobs in this country with the majority of these coming from start-ups less than five years old with four or fewer employees.
Fairfield County School District Superintendent J.R. Green has it right. “When we invest in young people, that’s how we transform lives. That’ how we transform the community.”
We need the transformational promise of free technical college tuition made to South Carolinians in 1998 to be fulfilled across the state.
Fairfield County is setting the example.