Graduates of 34 South Carolina districts can get college costs slashed by $2,000 this school year
COLUMBIA — Legislators are offering high school graduates of 34 school districts the chance to get a technical degree for free, potentially catapulting thousands of young people to a good-paying job — without mountains of college debt — while providing employers with trained workers.
The South Carolina Promise scholarship, approved as part of the state budget, covers up to $2,000 per person this school year.
While the state’s 16 technical colleges charge full-time students more than twice that amount in tuition and required fees, the scholarship is designed to supplement other financial aid. Students must first apply for a federal Pell Grant and state lottery-supported scholarships. The Promise will fill any gap, plus contribute up to $300 for books.
“I hope it gives promise for a promising future for those who would otherwise not be financially able to get a higher education,” said Sen. Karl Allen, D-Greenville, who advocated for the program. “It opens up a whole new world of opportunity.”
It’s not yet clear how many students statewide are benefiting this semester. About 7,600 students graduated in the spring from the 34 poor school districts.
But the offer isn’t limited to the Class of 2018. It extends to anyone who’s earned a diploma or GED while living in the eligible districts over the past six years and doesn’t already have a bachelor’s degree.
“If we have students out there who haven’t found their niche — or they started one thing and had to get a minimum-wage job — but always wanted to be a welder or whatever, this allows them the opportunity to go back and get their certificate and training,” said Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, another proponent.
The 34 eligible districts are those that sued the state for more money 25 years ago. The state Supreme Court closed the case last November, three years after ordering state legislators to improve opportunities for poor, rural children, which released lawmakers from the high court’s oversight.
“For rural students in underperforming districts ... we’ve not given them the best springboard to a job,” Hutto said. “This is one thing we can do to bring them up.”
Legislators put $3.9 million for Promise scholarships in the budget that took effect July 5. Tim Hardee, president of the S.C. Technical College System, said he hopes the program’s so popular the money runs out, which would show more students want access to a degree or certificate.
The offer expands on last year’s state pilot at Williamsburg Technical and similar programs launched several years ago at tech schools in Sumter and Greenwood, which were funded by local governments, industries and private donations.
At Central Carolina in Sumter, the percentage of local teens enrolling in the college after graduating high school doubled from 15 percent to 30 percent, said Hardee, who was president there before coming to the state agency.
Before that program offered two years of free tuition to students from Sumter, Lee, Kershaw and Clarendon counties, the college’s students averaged 28 years old.