Over the past three years, the SC Legislature has worked with Gov. Henry McMaster to make college more affordable for more South Carolinians — most dramatically by more than tripling the amount of money the state provides for income-based scholarships for students attending state colleges, from $20 million to $70 million.
Combine that with increased funding that has allowed public colleges to hold their tuition rates steady, and the result has been that all SC students who qualify for a federal Pell Grant are now able to receive state funds to cover any college costs that aren’t paid by the grants and other scholarships — nearly 20,000 students last year.
That’s on top of $78 million a year worth of workforce training grants that cover the tuition for people of any income to earn an industry credential or associate degree at one of our state’s technical colleges in such high-demand careers as manufacturing, health care, computer science, information technology, transportation, logistics and construction.
But some sort of post-secondary education has become an essential job credential, and there are plenty of people who make too much to qualify for a Pell Grant but not enough to afford to go back to college — or to go to college at all — and who wants to pursue a course of study other than the ones state officials have targeted
The Education Data Initiative reports that the average cost of tuition and fees for in-state students at SC public colleges was $12,500 in 2019-20. That was higher than all but 10 other states and $3,150 more than the US average — which was doubly difficult because our students are poorer, on average, than students in other states.
That’s why we’re encouraged by the decision by community colleges in Charleston and Spartanburg to extend the free tuition offer beyond just the high-demand fields and low-income students. Trident Technical College, which joined Spartanburg Community College in offering the program, announced last month that it is extending its free tuition to all students in all 150 of its programs, regardless of income, through the spring 2024 semester. We encourage all the state’s other technical colleges to follow their lead and find a way to expand their free-tuition programs to cover all students in all programs.
As Trident Tech President Mary Thornley explained: “Great jobs are going unfilled in our community because employers can’t find people with the right skills. Not having to pay for tuition out of pocket removes one of the biggest hurdles for people who want to train or retrain to land one of the many in-demand jobs that are available.”
SC Public Radio reports that the college, which saw its enrollment drop during the pandemic, attributes much of its 4.5% increase in enrollment in the fall to the free tuition program.
The program focuses on career-ready programs, but it also includes the school’s university transfer program, which allows students to complete the first two years of a four-year degree at a technical college — for free. Although that doesn’t help students who have already racked up crippling debt, for students enrolling now, it should cut undergraduate debt in half.
Federal COVID-19 funding is covering much of the cost of the free and reduced-price tuition programs, but these programs are essential to our state’s efforts to create a workforce that can help our economy continue to grow. The colleges, the governor and the Legislature need to start planning for a way to continue them after federal funds are spent.