For thousands of low-income South Carolina high school students, enrolling in a college degree program after graduation can feel like an almost unattainable goal.
State and federally sponsored financial aid programs can help offset the economic burden, but the rising cost of tuition has meant that even with these supports students oftentimes still owe thousands of dollars each year.
A new scholarship fund aims to close that critical funding gap for the students who need it the most.
On Wednesday, Charleston businessman and philanthropist Ben Navarro and his wife Kelly announced the creation of the Meeting Street Scholarship Fund.
The program is specifically designed to open the door to higher education for high-achieving Charleston County students who otherwise might have ruled out college because of financial concerns.
Scholarship recipients will be awarded up to $10,000 per year, for a total of $40,000 over four years, to help pay for tuition at four-year colleges and universities across South Carolina.
Anyone who graduates from a Charleston County School District public high school and earns either a state lottery LIFE or Palmetto Fellows scholarship and qualifies for a federal Pell Grant is eligible for the fund.
"The Meeting Street Scholarship Fund announcement, I have to say, represents a major milestone for public education in the Charleston County School District," said school board Chairman Eric Mack. "Every student in our school deserves this path-changing opportunity. It is our responsibility to make sure that more students are college ready and scholarship eligible."
Just over 54 percent of Charleston students who graduated in May 2019 were ready for college, according to data compiled by the S.C. Department of Education.
An estimated 500 students will qualify for the scholarships initially, but the Navarro family hopes that number will grow over time.
"The Meeting Street Scholarship Fund, alongside existing sources of state and federal financial aid, can make college graduation a realistic goal for thousands of Charleston County students over time," Navarro said in a statement. "Removing financial barriers to higher education is critical to developing our community and South Carolina’s future leaders."
Charleston Branch NAACP President Dot Scott said she hopes the scholarship will also be an incentive for younger students to keep up with their studies and stay in school.
As one of eight children growing up, Scott said she knew her parents wouldn’t be able to fund her college education. Despite graduating at the top of her class, she ultimately opted to postpone higher education until she was an adult and could afford it.
"Surely, had something like this been there for me at the time I probably would have gone to school," she said.
Newly elected Charleston school board member Lauren Herterich pointed out that there are often costs not met by students’ financial aid opportunities, including fees for room and board.
"To have that supplemental $10,000 is life-changing," she said.
Fronde Stille, the district’s director of school counseling services and Title IX coordinator said many high-achieving students need significant financial assistance to continue their educational careers.
"These scholarships will be extremely important as they pursue their dreams and can give them an advantage they might not have thought was possible before," Stille said.
The Meeting Street scholarship is renewable each year as long as students maintain the eligibility criteria set forth by their state lottery scholarship. Students who wish to renew their LIFE or Palmetto Fellows scholarship must maintain a 3.0 GPA and complete at least 30 credit hours by the end of each academic year.
This year's graduating seniors are eligible to apply for the first round of funding, and the application is expected to open in January.
Navarro is most widely known within Charleston's education community as the founder of the Meeting Street school model, for which the new scholarship fund is named.
The successful opening of the group's flagship school, Meeting Street Academy, in 2008 eventually led to the creation of two public-private partnership schools with CCSD, Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood and Meeting Street Elementary @Burns.
There are things offered at the Meeting Street campuses — including longer school days, two instructors in each classroom and a longer school year — that often are difficult for traditional public schools to implement.
Both schools have been praised for their strong academic results from high-poverty North Charleston neighborhoods but have sparked criticism from others who worry about the so-called lack of public input and oversight associated with public-private partnership schools.