Of the $303 million in lottery scholarships S.C. awarded in the 2016-2017 school year, roughly one-third of that money went to students who dropped out or took longer than six years to graduate, according to an analysis of Commission on Higher Education data.
Most striking are the low graduate rates of students receiving the state’s $2,800 HOPE scholarships. Just 22 percent of those students — college freshmen who had a B-average in high school — graduate within four years, according to Commission on Higher Education documents. Forty percent graduate in six years.
By comparison, 42 percent of S.C. students graduate within four years through all S.C. colleges. 64 percent graduate in six, according to commission documents.
“That doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Sen. Vincent Sheheen, a Kershaw Democrat who sits on the Senate Education Committee and who has long opposed the lottery. “I’d say there is a better way to invest our money to help students get a better education.”
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Sheheen and other lottery critics say the state-run lottery, approved by state voters 18 years ago, must be reformed.
“I know there were a lot of promises with the lottery... but it hasn’t lived up to those promises,” said Rep. Joshua Putnam, a Republican state representative from Anderson who will lead the anti-lottery group, Palmetto Family, when his tenure is up.
Not all scholarships have the same success rate. The higher the grade requirements and the longer a student has been in college, the more likely he or she is to graduate on time.
- For LIFE scholarship recipients — students who have a B-average, a 1100 SAT score and are in the top 30 percent of their class — 45 percent graduate in four years and 64 percent graduate in 6 years, which is about the same percentage as students overall, according to commission documents.
- And for Palmetto Fellows, the highest-paying and most elite lottery scholarship, 73 percent graduate in four years and 86 percent graduate in six years, according to commission documents.
Students like Stephen Bradley, who received a $5,000 LIFE scholarship is one of thousands who graduated on-time and credits the scholarship as an important part of his success.
Bradley, who holds a degree in manufacturing, also received an “enhancement” of extra scholarship money, given to students who major in in-demand areas, including science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“After my first year, that was my only scholarship,” said Bradley, who graduated from the University of South Carolina in 2014. “I think the enhancement is going to be important ... because sometimes people are getting majors that require them to go to grad school.”
Bradley, who now works for Sunoco in Elon, N.C., said the enhancement helped cut down on the amount of money he had to borrow to get a degree. Keeping the enhancement program will “help you get a return on your investment,” he said.
As the name indicates, lottery scholarship money is primarily funded by lottery revenue. However, $470 million from the general fund — taxpayer money — was spent supplementing lottery scholarships between fiscal years 2012 and 2016, according to a 2017 report from the Commission on Higher Education. Though the report shows less general fund revenue is being spent on lottery scholarships every year, the state still spent $50 million from the general fund to support lottery scholarships in fiscal year 2016, according to the report.
Across the board, the longer a student is in college the more likely he or she is to retain the scholarship, according to commission data. That’s why lawmakers from both parties — namely Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, and Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Horry — have recommended starting the scholarship at a lower amount for freshmen and increasing it every year.
“You don’t want to say to some kids, ‘You’re not a good investment.’ ... But it’s not a good investment” when students drop out or lose their scholarships,” Hembree said in March.