Robert Butler wasn't planning on going to college.
He didn't work very hard when he was a student at Summerville High School. He just didn't think he would need or use what was being taught in his classes.
Nobody in his family had attended college. Butler assumed he would work in a family upholstery business.
But a high school teacher nudged him to take some courses at Trident Technical College. And in his second year of part-time study there, he got a letter telling him about the Keystone program, a "bridge" program that helps Trident students make more successful transitions to the College of Charleston.
Butler, 22, decided to enroll in the program. He's now a College of Charleston senior who expects to graduate in December with a bachelor's degree in Hispanic studies and a minor in modern linguistics.
He attributed much of his success to the Keystone program, which allowed him to take one class at the College of Charleston during each of his last two semesters at Trident, and offered other supportive services.
"You learn a lot from it," he said of the program. "You grow from it."
The Keystone program, with 12 to 15 students each year, is one of many bridge programs in the state that try to help students who begin at technical colleges earn a four-year degree. Many of the state's four-year public colleges started offering the programs several years ago. They range in size from about a dozen to hundreds of students.
College and university leaders said the programs have had many successes and show promise overall. They continue to try to improve them by incorporating lessons they learn from participants each year.
Dorinda Harmon, director of transfer and adult student admission at the College of Charleston, said the Keystone program is for students who are among the first generation in their families to attend college; from lower-income families; or from a minority group. The program helps students to get familiar with the college and its services before they enroll, she said. And they develop connections with college staffers and other Keystone participants so they have a support network in place before they arrive on campus.
The college also has bridge programs for students interested in education and the hospitality industry, she said. In all programs, between 50 and 60 percent of technical college students make the jump to the College of Charleston.
Clemson University launched one of the state's earliest programs in 2006. The "Bridge to Clemson University" was started to serve the many students who wanted to attend the school, but fell short on the increasingly tough academic requirements. Students begin their college careers at Tri-County Technical College in Pendleton.
Program director Sue Whorton said 164 students enrolled in the one-year program in 2006, and it has grown each year since then. The school expects about 550 students in the fall. More than 70 percent of the students enrolled have met the credit and grade-point average requirements, and were eligible to enroll at Clemson, she said.
A unique feature of the Clemson program is that students all live in the same apartment complex while attending Tri-County.
The program is going very well, Whorton said. Most students rate it favorably. But many said they wish they were simply admitted to Clemson in the first place.
The University of South Carolina launched a bridge program with students at all of the state's technical colleges two years ago, said Scott Verzyl, assistant vice provost for enrollment management. About 650 are enrolled now, most of them at Midlands Technical College in Columbia. He doesn't yet have enough data to know specifically how well the program is performing, he said. But students have said they find it useful.
The program provides services and advice to students at the technical colleges to help them make a smooth transition to the university, he said. "We make the process easy for them. We walk them through it."