A College of Charleston student suffered a double blow last year when he lost his father — and then lost his status as an in-state resident.
His tuition bill totaled $10,000 more than he expected.
Charlie Knight was a third-year computer science student at the college when his father died by suicide last October.
Knight tried to stay in school, but he ultimately decided to drop out for the remainder of the fall semester. He then took the spring semester off from school but continued to live and work in downtown Charleston.
"It just wasn't working for me, and I just needed to take some time off and just really process the death," he said.
His parents had divorced, and his mother resides in Alabama, where Knight grew up. His father had moved to Charleston in early 2016, and Knight enrolled at the college the following fall. His father claimed him as a dependent, and Knight received the in-state tuition rate for his second semester at school.
But when he re-applied to the college this fall, he learned he had lost that status and faced a far bigger bill.
"It was debilitating," he said. "It almost made me want to not come back this semester."
The unexpected change meant Knight faced taking on several thousand dollars in loans to complete his degree.
All of South Carolina's public colleges and universities are bound by the same residency rules set out by state law and the state's Commission on Higher Education. But navigating the system can be a complicated task for students like Knight.
"The only real warning I got, was that my financial aid status might change because I had filled out a FAFSA when I was still dependent on my father," Knight said. "But I did not think my whole residency status would change."
Representatives at the College of Charleston were unable to discuss the specifics of Knight's case due to federal privacy laws.
"The College carefully evaluates all residency-related questions and extenuating circumstances on a case-by-case basis, but as a state agency we are bound by the laws and regulations set forth by the South Carolina General Assembly and the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education," said Ron Menchaca, the college's senior director of communications.
After he got his bill, Knight was offered the option to keep his in-state status if he classified himself as an independent. Brea Roy, the college's legal residency coordinator, outlined the offer in an email to Knight's mother, Michele Strength, who shared it with The Post and Courier.
However, one of the necessary documents to gain in-state independent status is having either a valid South Carolina driver's licence or state ID card for at least 12 months before the application date.
Although Knight had lived in Charleston since 2016, he never applied for a South Carolina driver's license or ID because he didn't have a car. Even if he got a driver’s license, he wouldn't be eligible to apply for in-state tuition until the spring 2021 term.
When his mother found out about the change in tuition, she reached out to college officials, including Roy, President Andrew Hsu and treasurer David Katz.
Roy responded to Strength via email on Aug. 26, explaining that any student who withdraws from college must reapply, and that triggers a re-evaluation of their residency status.
When Knight reapplied, he used his mother's Alabama address, which led to him being classified as out-of-state.
"We are incredibly sorry for the loss of Charlie’s father and would never want to add to the stress that comes with the loss of a parent or loved one, but neither Mr. Katz nor myself are legally allowed to modify a student’s residency status unless they meet the requirements that are set by the state of South Carolina," Roy said to Strength in an email.
This week, two days after a reporter contacted the College of Charleston to inquire about Knight's situation, Strength received an email from Hsu that informed her of an option to restore Knight's in-state status.
"We learned that academic support staff at the College had been working with Charlie since this summer to advise him regarding how to rectify his academic standing, which in turn would restore him to in-state status for purposes of tuition and fees," said Hsu's email, which Strength also shared. "I apologize if this option was not clearly explained. But this path forward remains an option, and we would very much like to help Charlie through this process."
The problem stemmed from Knight's not formally withdrawing from the college last fall. Instead, he just left school.
Had he followed the college's advice and filed paperwork to withdraw, his in-state status would have remained in place. But Knight didn't know that at the time.
"I just was kinda at that point where I was like, 'School doesn't matter, at least this semester. I'm going to worry about it when I feel I'm healthy and ready to deal with it and can come back,'" he said.
At the College of Charleston, residency is determined by the legal residency officer and two support staff in the treasurer's office.
Students can appeal the office's decision, but Menchaca said such appeals "are not too common."
The college gets fewer than 10 of them per year. It's a similar story at Clemson, which received 19 residency appeals last year, according to Joe Galbraith, Clemson's associate vice president for strategic communications.
"In some cases, there are extenuating circumstances that require further evaluation," Galbraith said, "and our team works hard to find the right solution for each student."
Knight did not file an appeal to his residency decision, but he is now working on the necessary paperwork to withdraw retroactively, and that promises to restore him to in-state status. He plans to submit everything next week and hopes that will lower his bill for this semester.
"I believe it was a miscommunication. I don't particularly blame anyone," Knight said. "I don't blame the school at all. I just blame the whole system."
Knight, now a philosophy student, is unsure when he will graduate, but his goal is to do so by December 2020. If his in-state status is restored, he said he might be able to graduate debt-free.
"Right now," he said, "I'm just happy to be in school."