Central Carolina offering free college tuition to today’s ninth graders

A college education just got a lot more affordable for a lucky group of local students.

Any ninth grade student enrolled in the Lee County School District or Robert E. Lee Academy can go to college free, thanks to a brand new scholarship program being offered at Central Carolina Technical College. Dr. Tim Hardee, CCTC president, was in Bishopville Monday afternoon to make the announcement with a few folks from the education and business community.

“Any current ninth grade student who graduates from high school in 2015 will receive a 2-year scholarship to Central Carolina,” Hardee said. “And we’d be delighted if we gave every ninth grader a scholarship.”

To be eligible for the scholarship, students must graduate on time in 2015 with at least a “C” average, and test ready for college level coursework.

Hardee said the goal is to get students into college as soon as they graduate from high school. “The average age of our students is 28,” he said. “Rather than waiting for 10 years before they go back to school, we want to get the students in college earlier.”

That’s an idea Lee County Economic Development Alliance Director Jeff Burgess hardily supports. “Prospective industries are more interested in whether a community has an existing and future workforce rather than in location and other incentives,” Burgess said. “They want to know they can get skilled workers. This program puts that into motion. You can have a workforce ready when an industry comes.”

Hardee said students have a choice of more than 60 programs to choose from at Central Carolina. “Or, if they want to earn a bachelor’s degree, they can get two years’ worth of undergraduate credit with us and transfer to a four-year college,” he said.

Robert E. Lee interim Head of School Maria Watson said she is “very excited about this opportunity for our students. Students will be finding out about this now, in ninth grade, so they have something to work for; they have a goal to work toward.”

Lee County Superintendent of Education Dr. Cleo Richardson said the scholarship program will “help students understand why it’s important to make good grades. What it means ultimately for their future is that this is an opportunity to become a productive citizen. The program will provide good skilled workers for industries that choose to come to Lee County.”

Rep. Grady Brown said the scholarship offer is “unbelievable, almost too good to be true. This is wonderful for our community. A college education at Central Carolina is already affordable but this means a student can get a degree for free and come out with a marketable skill. Dr. Hardee has done a remarkable job as the president of Central Carolina.”

Hardee and his staff plan to meet soon with the county’s ninth graders and their parents to answer questions about the scholarship. “One of the goals of the program is to encourage students to stay in school and keep their grades up,” he said. “The scholarship is the carrot at the end: do your work and the scholarship is there waiting for you.”

Hardee said Central Carolina already has a good relationship with Lee Central High School and Robert E. Lee. “We teach dual enrollment college classes for eligible students at both schools,” he said. “This is an extension of our partnership that will benefit the entire community. We want to get the word out. There’s nothing to sign up for; the scholarship will be there waiting when you graduate in 2015.”