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LCDC looking to start free tuition initiative

Local students working to earn their associate’s degree could have their education paid for if the county is able to fund a new educational program.


Following the success of the Piedmont Technical College Center for Advanced Manufacturing in Laurens County, the Laurens County Development Corporation is looking into the feasibility of following the model of a handful of other counties that pay for students to receive a 2-year degree through their local technical college system.


By having a larger selection of qualified workforce available, the LCDC hopes to show industry that it’s serious about making Laurens County a sought-after place to locate or expand.


At a recent conference, LCDC Deputy Director Jonathan Coleman and Laurens County Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Greg Alexander heard from officials from Kingsport, Tenn., one place that’s paying for higher education and seeing success. The county and city have partnered together for an “Educate and Grow” initiative that funds post-secondary education for qualified students.


“They’ve seen an almost 50 percent increase in the number of people receiving associate’s degree and the per-capita income going from $30,000 to $51,000,” Coleman said at Tuesday's LCDC meeting. “They use higher education as an economic development engine.”


In Kingsport, the tuitions are paid through money set aside from the county and city; $250,000 is saved each year, but the full amount hasn’t yet to be used. Often, students only need partial funding after they qualify for scholarships. Since South Carolina already has an education lottery system established for scholarships, it could be easier for a community like Laurens County to fund tuition.


“Cherokee and Clarendon counties are already looking into doing something similar to Kingsport,” Coleman said.


Not only would the readily-available workforce attract new companies, but the program could bring in more long-term residents.


“This could be a tool to make people want to come here to live,” Coleman said.


Most Kingsport students use the Northeast State Technical College System; since there are now two PTC centers located in Laurens County, local students have more options.


“We actually have a leg up with a regional campus of PTC right here,” Coleman said.


After preliminary research, it’s estimated that Laurens County wouldn’t need quite as much funding set aside as Kingsport does.


“We believe that with $150,000, we could implement this type of program,” Coleman said.


To continue looking into the program, the LCDC is compiling five years’ worth of data from Laurens District 55 High School and Clinton High School. This way, the number of students that would be earning their degree can be estimated.


“We thought about just funding those students who are going to study an industry trade, but we’d like to do all of them,” Coleman said. “Even if they just take two years at PTC and transfer, that person will be working towards a bachelor’s degree.”


Long-term, more people with an advanced degree will boost the local economy. Data shows that people with even just a 2-year degree make $400,000 more over their lifetime than someone with only a high school diploma.


“That’s more money they have to spend,” Coleman said.


While the project is still in the beginning stages, LCDC Board Chairman Jim Coleman, along with a few other board members, voiced his support.


“This is something we need to wrap our arms around and try to implement here,” he said.

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