South Carolina students counting on state-funded scholarships to pay for college soon might find they are harder to get.
State lawmakers are considering a bill that would increase the grade-point averages and standardized-test scores required to receive scholarships. It aims to offset the increase in students who are eligible for the scholarships — and, in turn, increased cost — after the state lowered the requirements for receiving an "A" or "B" to make South Carolina students competitive with other states.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Horry, also seeks to reform the $274 million lottery scholarship program.
"If we adopted this bill, we would be going back to the same group that was qualified for the scholarship before," Hembree said at a Wednesday morning committee hearing attended by about 30 people.
If the state doesn't change the way it doles out lottery scholarships, an additional 25,500 students will be eligible to receive them by 2020 thanks to the new 10-point grading scale, which went into effect with the 2016-17 school year. That would cost taxpayers $88.3 million, according to a 2018 report by the Commission on Higher Education.
Even before the change in the grading scale, the number of students receiving scholarships had been increasing three times as fast as lottery revenue, which funds the scholarships, Hembree said.
"It was going to catch up to us anyway," said Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, the only other senator present at the meeting.
Who would be eligible?
The bill would limit students eligible for the LIFE scholarship, worth up to $5,000 a year, to those with a 3.5 grade-point average — half B's and half A's — and an 1170 SAT score. Right now, students need only a 3.0 B-average and an 1100 SAT score to be eligible.
For top students, the Palmetto Fellows Scholarship pays college freshmen $6,700 per year and $7,500 per year to sophomores, juniors and seniors. The bill would raise the GPA requirement from 3.5 to 4.0 and the SAT requirement from 1200 to 1280.
The proposal would require students seeking a HOPE scholarship to achieve a 3.5 GPA.
Hembree said the bill changes SAT requirements because, like the new grading scale, it is easier now to get a higher SAT score. For example, a 1100 SAT score in 2015 is equivalent to an 1170 on today's SAT, according to The College Board, the private nonprofit that develops the SAT test.
In 2017, the South Carolina Department of Education called on the Legislature to raise the GPA requirements, but not the SAT score requirements. Hembree's bill took that recommendation a step farther in raising the standardized-test score requirements.
Despite the minor difference, "We are supportive of Senator Hembree’s bill," education department spokesman Ryan Brown said in an email.
Aside from increasing academic requirements, Hembree also proposes shifting some lottery money to other education programs.
The most sweeping reform would limit freshman college students to receiving only the HOPE Scholarship, which provides $2,800 a year. If freshmen meet the grade requirements for a LIFE scholarship, worth up to $5,000, they can receive it as a sophomore.
The reasoning behind this, Hembree said, is that higher-performing students and college sophomores through seniors are more likely to stay in college and re-qualify for the scholarship.
One in five freshmen receiving the HOPE scholarship, the lowest award, do not retain it. But more than half of freshmen receiving the LIFE scholarship, a step up, retain it. For sophomores receiving LIFE, the amount of those who keep the scholarship rises to three-quarters, Hembree said.
"It's a better investment as you go along," Hembree said.
Hutto said he'd like to see some of the money being saved placed into need-based scholarships.
Another suggestion would tie lottery revenue to the amount a scholarship is worth, which would make amounts vary by year. If that were to go through, there would be a minimum amount each scholarship was worth, Hembree said.
"If the lottery generates 10 percent more, you get a 10 percent bump" in scholarship money, he said.
Another proposal that could be popular with teachers would shift $6 million in scholarships from sophomores studying science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields to juniors and seniors studying education.
"We have a teacher shortage crisis in South Carolina," said Kathy Maness, executive director of Palmetto State Teachers Association. "We look forward to it passing."