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OPINION: County Should Benefit from Workforce Scholarships

January 19, 2022 by Emilee O'Brien | Spartanburg Academic Movement | 2022news

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SCC students will receive instututional scholarships extending Free Tuition initiative through the 2022-2023 academic year.

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OPINION: Emilee O'BrienFor the Herald-Journal

In November, Gov. Henry McMaster announced an innovative pilot program and bold investment in college access and career development. Workforce Scholarships for the Future will cover tuition for certain degrees and industry credentials at the 16 technical colleges in the state. McMaster’s Workforce Scholarships for the Future aim to boost the qualifications of the workforce in high demand fields including manufacturing, health care, science and information technology, construction, and transportation logistics. 

McMaster invested $17 million from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER) fund to launch the pilot program on Jan. 1. An additional $124 million has been requested from the General Assembly to fund the program for 15,000 recipients through June 2024. To qualify, students must complete the FAFSA, maintain at least a 2.0 GPA, and show proof of employment, complete 100 service hours, or take a financial literacy class.  

Spartanburg County is uniquely poised to benefit from Workforce Scholarships with initiatives already underway to address the fact that Spartanburg’s educational attainment lags state and national averages. Spartanburg Academic Movement (SAM) convenes partners, aligns resources, and closely monitors data on high school graduation, college enrollment, persistence, and completion rates. Our numbers for each of these indicators are increasing at rates that exceed state and national averages. As of 2020, 37 percent of Spartanburg residents enrolled in higher education complete an associate’s or bachelor’s degree within six years. 

Associate degrees and industry credentials play an important role in the overall education levels of our community and often serve as an access point to future four-year degrees. Responsible for Spartanburg County’s economic development, OneSpartanburg, Inc. knows it is critical to economic prosperity to support pathways to degree completion at both the associate and baccalaureate levels. 
Financial barriers are one of the greatest impediments to accessing higher education and developing capacity to meet the ever-growing workforce demands. Spartanburg Community College is at the forefront of tackling this issue to reengage and retain individuals that would have otherwise never been able to access higher education.

In May, SCC worked with Spartanburg Academic Movement, OneSpartanburg, Inc. and other partners to go virtually tuition free for the 2021-2022 academic year. Rebecca Hui Zhang is just one example of the positive impact free tuition can have in our community and the state. A mother of two children, Rebecca lost her job at a travel agency during the pandemic and wanted to return to school to land a more stable career but was hesitant to take on more debt. When she learned of SCC’s free tuition, she jumped at the chance to enroll. Rebecca is now in the Computer Networking and Cyber Security Program and plans to utilize SCC’s tuition free opportunity to find a stable career she is passionate about, that she would not have been able to pursue otherwise. 

SCC’s tuition free initiative has been an unprecedented success. Enrollment increased 32 percent compared to Fall 2019, marking the highest total enrollment in the college’s history with 6,097 students enrolled across five campuses. Meanwhile, enrollment for the SC Technical College System decreased 8.3 percent and community colleges nationwide experienced a 17.6 percent decline. Furthermore, SCC saw an unprecedented 66 percent increase in students aged 24 and older as well as significant increases in minority populations. We expect the Governor’s investment in tuition reduction will result in similar successes benefitting historically marginalized populations and adults returning to learning.

SCC will extend its free tuition initiative through the 2022-2023 academic year to continue to help Rebecca and thousands of other students chase and live out their dreams. Allen Smith, OneSpartanburg, Inc. President and CEO says, “Our partnership with SCC has proven that removing real financial barriers leads to a significant spike in enrollment. Our capacity to produce an educated workforce impacts Spartanburg’s ability to attract and retain employers offering high paying knowledge-based jobs. Aligning scholarship opportunities with current and future job trends sets up Spartanburg’s people and businesses for success.” 

Gov. McMaster has created a tangible path to higher education for all Spartanburg County residents. Thinking beyond the pilot phase in 2024, Workforce Scholarships can serve as a national model for tuition-free technical colleges to drive an innovative workforce. To create sustainable long-term change in economic development and educational attainment, robust, multi-sector investment in college access is necessary. Workforce Scholarships for the Future are a boost that South Carolina’s students and the economy need to thrive. 

Emilee O’Brien is the Director of Advocacy, Spartanburg Academic Movement. Allen Smith, President and CEO of OneSpartanburg, Inc., and Dr. Michael Mikota, President of Spartanburg Community College, also contributed to this op-ed.