COLUMBIA, SC — The House Ways and Means Committee did not include an increase for Tuition Grants in the first draft of the state’s roughly $8 billion general fund budget. With $522 million in added money this year, the budget committee funded other statewide needs such as $100 million for the schools in the I-95 Corridor of Shame, $150 million for the underfunded state pension fund, and $82 million for Hurricane Matthew recovery costs. While it is very early in the budget process, this is the first year that the Tuition Grants program did not experience a recommended annual increase since the state began recovering from Great Recession in FY 2011.
Because there were no mega-jackpots this year to simulate lottery ticket sales, there was almost $18 million less in lottery funds available for programming. Lottery money is the primary source of funding for the state’s merit scholarship programs—Palmetto Fellows, LIFE, HOPE, and Tuition Assistance—and the source of over $8 million for Tuition Grants. In order to fully fund the merit scholarships this year, the Ways and Means Committee had to increase funding in this program by more than $20 million to accommodate normal growth and an estimated 2,400 new students who will qualify for scholarships as a result of the state Department of Education changing its uniform grading scale from 7 points to 10 points beginning in August 2016.
The sudden expansion of the merit scholarship program left no lottery money to fund or increase other SCICU priorities such as Tuition Grants, PASCAL, and state need-based grants. On the bright side, many of the additional students who will qualify for a merit scholarship will take those scholarships to one of the 20 SCICU member colleges or universities. In FY 2016, more than 8,500 students attending a SCICU member school qualified for approximately $41.3 million in merit aid, and over 13,500 students received more than $36.5 million in Tuition Grants.
The budget bill will move to the House floor where we do not expect much to change. Once it is sent to the Senate, we will get a chance to make our case before the Senate Finance Higher Education Subcommittee. The Tuition Grants Commission is scheduled to make their presentation to the subcommittee on March 1.