SC students could have harder time achieving lottery scholarships

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) – $274 million sounds like a lot of money, but when you're dividing it up between so many high school students in the state, it becomes less and less. Now, changes could be coming to the state's lottery scholarship program. South Carolina students counting on state-funded scholarships to help pay for college tuition might soon find that money harder to get.

A change in the grade-point scale in 2016 made it easier for students to achieve an "A" or "B," which led to more students qualifying for a scholarship, and ultimately increasing costs. But now, lawmakers are considering raising the requirements for lottery scholarships to avoid a multi-million-dollar funding crisis.

The proposed bill would raise the grade-point averages and standardized-test scores needed in order to be eligible for scholarships from the South Carolina Education Lottery. State Senator Greg Hembree (R-Horry) is sponsoring the bill, saying too many students are eligible, making it too expensive for the state.

By 2020, as things are now with the new 10-point grading scale, 25,500 students will be eligible to receive lottery funded scholarships; that would be an $88.3 million increase for taxpayers, according to a 2018 report by the Commission on Higher Education. Sen. Hembree said that's a gap the state can't sustain.

Director of guidance and lead counselor at Socastee High School, Eva Gaddy, said that before the 2016 change, 52 percent of the graduating class used some form of the South Carolina Lottery Scholarship. The year after, with the 10-point scale change, 72 percent of the graduating class of 2017 were awarded.

"The ultimate goal is, whether you have a 3.0 or a 3.5 is… Are you ready to go to college? Do you have great work ethics?  It's not all about making those A's and B'S or C's. Some students maybe wait till the very end and pull barely a C… It's do they have the work ethic along with the GPA along with the SAT score?" said Gaddy.

She also said the changes in the grading scale has definitely provided students with more opportunities and helped the kids, but also wants students to continue to strive for success and be the best they can be.

"It has helped the kids, but I think it has also helped the kids sometime be a little slack… because when I'm talking to parents and students and they go, 'Well I have an 80.' I always say well I'm still in the mindset of the 7-point scale… you're just doing 80 work. I'd rather you be doing 85 work if you're expected to go to college. We've all been to college, so we know what's expected, and I don't know that an 80 is going to get them into college. So, they still need to up their whole game to make sure they are doing their very best," said Gaddy.

The proposed bill would require a student to have a 3.5 GPA and an 1170 on the SAT to get the $5,000 LIFE scholarship.The bill would also raise requirements for the HOPE and Palmetto Fellows scholarships.

Sen. Hembree said $20 million dollars would also be added to programs for lower income students.

Horry County Schools said in 2017, it graduated the largest amount of students, at 2,532. Out of those students, $87.5 million were awarded scholarships, up over $24 million over the previous year before the grading scale change. In addition, 77% of those students met eligibility requirements for lottery scholarships, which the spokesperson for HCS said was the most ever.

Ryan Thompson is a senior at St. James High School and has been awarded the LIFE scholarship through the lottery fund.  He said he understands the need for the change in the program.

"It makes it a lot easier for a student to get an A or a B, and so that's mostly what you have to get to be able to get these types of scholarships," Thompson  said. "I'd say I'd be in favor of changing the requirements to it, just because the change in the GPA and the 10-point grading scale. I think that way it can make it fair over all the students so that they don't run out of money for scholarships, because without that scholarship, I'd definitely have to take out student loans and that's not something that any student wants to have to do."

Horry-Georgetown Technical College is one of the colleges that says it benefits from students who get those scholarships.

HGTC Vice President of Finance Harold Hawley said the lottery tuition assistance program is available to all South Carolina residents who are enrolled in 6 or more credit hours. He said a key aspect of this program is that the program is available to all South Carolina residents, regardless of their financial need or income level.

"The scholarship provides students with a source of financial resources that they otherwise may not have access to… even students who do not qualify for the Pell Grant or other federal monies that are need-based. You still have students who find themselves in times of need, and need financial assistance. That is the beauty of the tuition assistance program, it gives them that support they need to let them pursue again a higher education and higher quality of life," said Hawley.

Currently, there's no set timeline for this bill. However if the bill passes, the new requirements would be in place for current high school freshmen when they apply for scholarships.

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