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Free college tuition. There’s no catch, you could actually not pay a thing to go to some local colleges.
If you want to change your career or get a bigger paycheck, graduates of community colleges in South Carolina are leaving debt free with better jobs.
But how much longer will it last? 7NEWS learned it depends on which institution you ask.
Hector Ramos and Mike Binion are two students at Spartanburg Community College who say they are changing the trajectory of their lives.
“It’s been a really huge blessing. I’m actually married and have a daughter so the fact that it was free tuition really helped out,” said Ramos. He wanted to go to college after he graduated from high school, but as an immigrant, he said he couldn’t afford the tuition.
Binion never planned on attending higher education until he lost his job during the pandemic.
“I hated school. I figured I’d work minimum wage my whole life and get by,” said Binion. But now he is studying mechatronics, which will give him a huge salary boost.
Since fall of 2021, Spartanburg Community College utilized a combination of federal pandemic relief funding and strategic partnerships to offset tuition costs for students, opening up the opportunity for higher education to the community at virtually no cost.
SCC’s President Michael Mikota said free tuition helped spur a 32% increase in enrollment in 2021 over 2019 numbers.
“Sixty-six percent of the thousands of students that increased our enrollment this past year were 25 and older, so that tells me there is a burgeoning need and desire in the economy of individuals that are looking to get trained or acquire jobs that help to make their dreams come true,” Mikota said.
Mikota said it’s not uncommon nowadays for graduates of two-year programs in fields like nursing, logistics, and technology to land jobs with starting salaries of $60,000.
For some programs, like BMW scholars, where students train for three days and work two, that paycheck comes before they graduate.
“Not only are you getting free tuition, but you can get paid in an apprentice program and continue on,” said Mikota.
All SC Tech Colleges Offer “Some” Free Tuition:
Following closely on SCC’s success, in 2022 Governor McMaster launched a $17,000,000 program to cover technical college tuition for degrees and certificates in high demand careers.
That’s when Tri County, serving Anderson, Oconee, Pickens, and Greenville Tech jumped in.
Tri County said it’s seen a 10% jump in enrollment from this summer over last. And while Greenville Tech has not seen a notable bump in enrollment from $0 tuition, President Keith Miller said students who earn associate degrees in anything from manufacturing to radiology to aircraft maintenance are now demanding salaries equivalent to 4-year colleges in half the time.
“There’s huge opportunities out there now, you couple that with the fact of waiving tuition, the opportunity is right. The time is right, to make it happen, there’s clearly no doubt about that,” said Miller.
The free tuition is especially attractive when you consider student loan debt has reached $1.75 trillion in the U.S. alone. Stack that in dollar bills and it would go three quarters of the way to the moon.
How Long Will It Last?
The big question: how long will free tuition last? SCC said it will last at least through Spring of 2023, and it is now looking into finding private partners to keep the free tuition imitative going well beyond 2023 if possible.
Tri County said it hopes to do the same, depending on potential state funding. Greenville Tech is committed through at least fall of 2022 to the $0 tuition.
Governor McMaster has asked for an extension to his Workforce Scholarships for the Future Program so that it could continue through June of 2024. Since that program only covers high-demand careers, SCC remains unique in that its zero-tuition program is more comprehensive and covers all fields.
Ramos, now a citizen through marriage, is grateful that time was on his side.
“Oh man, it was just… a bunch of joy, it was just a lot of joy, especially for my family. I’m the first one to go to college for my family,” Ramos said.
He already has a job lined up in machine tool technology thanks to his training at SCC.
Binion said the free tuition has allowed him to turn down job offers so he can focus on a valuable and lucrative degree in Mechatronics.
“Go forth, make your life better. You’re the only person that can do it,” said Binion.