Ron Barnett, GreenvilleOnline.com
More than a decade after voters approved a South Carolina lottery pitched as a way to fund free tuition to technical schools and two-year colleges, students still aren't getting a free ride.
In fact, they're digging deeper into their pockets and going further into debt than ever before in order to get the technical degrees and training required to land the skilled jobs area employers need filled.
The gap between lottery scholarships and tuition has widened to the point where Greenville Tech students are paying more out of their pockets than before the South Carolina Education Lottery began selling tickets in 2002.
Tech school officials blame the rising tuition on falling state support. Legislators point to the post-9/11 recession followed by the economic crash of 2008 for declines in higher education funding.
Whatever the reason, tuition and fees at technical colleges in South Carolina are above the national average and among the highest in the Southeast, according to figures from the College Board and the Southern Regional Education Board.
Students shouldering staggering debt loads and those who simply can't afford the price tag to get the education they need to compete in the work force are left wondering how this is possible at a time when lottery revenues have continued to exceed original expectations.
"I think what happened is that once the lottery was approved, the college system looked at how much the students were going to get so they raised tuition up to actually negate the lottery money," said 41-year-old Greenville resident Sharrye Dantzler.
Dantzler said she gave up on her hope of taking photography courses because lottery assistance wasn't available for her.
"I'm just really disappointed in the fact that the lottery was specifically advertised as a way to help college students, a way to fund education, and within three years they had negated any benefit at all to the lottery," Dantzler told The Greenville News. "I just don't see the point now."
The pitch to voters
In an op-ed piece published in February 2000, then-Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges made a pitch for voters to approve an education lottery that November.
Among his selling points: "Proceeds from an education lottery will fund free tuition for students who are enrolled in a diploma, degree or certificate program at any technical college or two-year college in South Carolina."
Tuition at Greenville Technical College cost $661 a semester in 2000 when voters approved the constitutional change needed to establish a state-run lottery. By the time the lottery was up and running, tuition had jumped to $1,225 in 2003, according to school figures.
Becky Mann, Tech's director of public relations, said state budget cuts, which legislators blame on the post-9/11 recession, account for the near doubling of tuition at Greenville Tech between 2000 and 2003.
Since then, tuition and fees at the school have risen another 53 percent to $1,872.
Greenville Tech students once had to come up with $349 each semester after lottery tuition assistance. Now, full-time students who live in Greenville County have to come up with $847 per semester if they get the full lottery-funded tuition credit of $1,140, according to the college's figures.
Hodges, now a lawyer and business consultant, points out that at the time he left office in January 2003, lottery tuition assistance covered about 70 percent of average tuition at the state's two-year colleges - a figure he describes as "darn good."
"Our goal was to get as close to 100 percent as we could for the two-year institutions and the idea behind that is we felt like K-14 education should be guaranteed for people in South Carolina, because people are minimally going to need an associate's degree to be able to succeed and have a middle class lifestyle," Hodges told The News.
"That was certainly my vision and that's where we left it when I left office," he said.
Since leaving office, lottery revenue has only exceeded projections Hodges originally cited from the nonpartisan Board of Economic Advisers, which estimated that the lottery would generate $90 million in its first year and $150 million in subsequent years.
After falling just short of the mark its first year, when it raised $80.4 million, revenues jumped the second year to $213.3 million and hit $300 million in 2005-06. In 2012-13, the lottery generated $288.2 million, according to the State Budget and Control Board.
That brings the total raised to date to more than $3 billion; with another more than $300 million coming from interest earned and unclaimed prizes, according to the Budget and Control Board.
More than three-fourths of that money - $2.6 billion - has gone to scholarships and other higher education purposes, according to the lottery.
Another 21 percent goes to K-12 schools, including $95 million for buses and nearly $500 million for kindergarten. The remaining 2 percent goes to other educational programs, including county libraries, ETV and upgrades to programs at tech colleges aimed at addressing South Carolina's skilled health care work force shortage.
Timothy Madden of Greenville, chairman of the South Carolina Education Lottery Board of Commissioners, said the commission has no say in how the money is divvied out.
"The role of the lottery commission is to maximize the amount of money which we can deliver over to the state and then let the General Assembly decide how to appropriate that money," he said. "I think it's gone incredibly well from the generation of money standpoint."
State Sen. Larry Martin, who opposed starting a lottery when it was put to voters, says the promise of full tuition for tech schools was a pipe dream from the beginning.
Lottery advocates said the games not only would make tech schools free for full-time degree- or certificate-seeking students, but it also would expand existing scholarships to four-year institutions, fund endowments for top-grade professorships and upgrade technology in all state schools.
Martin, a Pickens Republican and member of the Senate Education Committee, says the calculations were unrealistic.
"You add all that together and we would have needed the proceeds from about three or four lotteries to fund all that," he said. "We had quite the task on our hands to come up with a bill that we could get through both houses that reflected what Gov. Hodges had promised."
The Legislature committed to covering the cost of the LIFE, Palmetto Fellows and Hope scholarships, whether the lottery made enough money to pay for all the students who qualified or not, Martin said. That left Lottery Tuition Assistance for two-year schools to be funded with what was left over.
In 2012-13, the most recent year with figures available, 19,224 students at the state's three research universities - Clemson University, the University of South Carolina and the Medical University of South Carolina - received a total of $101.2 million in lottery-funded scholarships.
The 55,000 students who received lottery-funded scholarships at all 16 of the state's technical colleges pulled in a combined $84.2 million.
Ed Miller, director of financial aid at USC, said that about 98 percent of incoming freshmen have lottery-funded scholarships.
Martin said that the recession that followed 9/11 put a drag on state revenues for the first couple of years of the lottery, which in turn placed a greater burden on colleges and universities - and their students - to fund their operations.
"Then, when we were just hitting our stride, we had the granddaddy of them all - the Great Recession in '08, '09 and 2010," Martin said. "Nothing in anybody's experience prepared us for what happened then."
"We funded less of the universities' budget or allocated less from the general fund to the colleges and universities," Martin said, "but we appropriated the scholarships to the individual students, or the parents writing the check."
In 2003-04, state funding accounted for 22 percent of Greenville Tech's revenue, according to Mann of Greenville Tech. By 2012-13 it had fallen to 12 percent.
During that period, tuition at Greenville Tech rose 53 percent, according to school figures. That compares with a national average increase of 35 percent, according to the College Board.
By comparison, the cost of going to Clemson and USC has jumped even more during the past decade, rising 66 percent at Clemson and 68 percent at USC-Columbia.
Tuition and fees at South Carolina's two-year tech schools are higher than the national average by $475 a year, according to a comparison of 2012-13 figures from the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education and the College Board.
Student costs at the state's public two-year colleges and technical schools ranked third-highest among the 16 states served by the Southern Regional Education Board, according to 2011-12 SREB figures.
Next door in North Carolina, tuition for full-time state residents at tech schools is $1,448 less per year, according to the 2011-12 SREB report, although just 15.3 percent of the proceeds of the North Carolina Education Lottery go to college scholarships, according to that state's lottery website.
Keith Miller, president of Greenville Tech, notes that lottery tuition assistance has risen each year during the five years he's been on the job, which he says reflects the importance the state puts on technical education.
"I have been very impressed with this support that allows students to reach their goals, and I feel it ranks high compared to what many other states offer," he said.
"I know it is also the responsibility of each college and university to make sure higher education is affordable, and Greenville Technical College takes that responsibility very seriously. State-funded assistance including (lottery tuition assistance) makes reasonable tuition even more affordable."
A bridge too far
It is still a financial chasm too wide for some students to bridge.
Connor Atkinson and Taylor Sizemore, parents of a 15-month-old daughter, are hanging their hopes on the possibility of getting federal Pell grants.
They were at Greenville Tech recently working through their options.
They both want to go to school full-time, and a Pell grant would cover their tuition. Even with that, though, they had to take out $1,500 in loans to pay for their books.
"It will be a mess if we don't get the Pell grant," Sizemore said.
Daisy Walker's husband is on active duty in the Air Force. That helped her qualify for a Pell grant. Otherwise, the 45-year-old mother of two would have had to take out loans to finish her two-year-degree in administrative office technology.
Former state Democratic Party chairman Dick Harpootlian, who helped lead the campaign to get the lottery passed, noted that Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam earlier this month proposed creation of an endowment from that state's lottery to waive tuition at community colleges and technology centers.
Considering the urgent need for more technically trained workers in the state, Harpootlian believes tech schools should be a higher priority for lottery funding.
"The guarantee was if you had a certain grade level you get a scholarship," he said, referring to the LIFE scholarship to four-year schools. "As the country and the state has changed, those priorities at the minimum need to be re-examined."
Ernie Passailaigue, who was a member of the Senate at the time of the lottery referendum and one of the chief proponents of the games, noted that the law states that the money it generates "must be used to support improvements and enhancements for educational purposes and programs" and that the net proceeds are to "supplement, not supplant, existing resources for educational purposes and programs."
Passailaigue, who resigned his Senate seat to become the first director of the Education Lottery and is now retired, said he wouldn't cast judgment on how the General Assembly has doled out the money.
"Once the Legislature got the money, it was up to them to spend it under the confines of the constitutional amendment and constraints of the act," he said. "I just don't think it would be right for me to say they have done a good job or they have done a bad job. I think that stands a test of the voting booth."