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Carolie Lenoir — along with Justin Shamblin, Joe Sturm and Bomar Porth — ask questions as they take in the details in Realtor Gary McGuckin's class at Trident Technical College on Thursday, March 21, 2019. File/Wade Spees/Staff

With a tweak to its scholarship rules, South Carolina could drop a hint to its top-performing high school seniors: Have you thought about technical college?

The S.C. House of Representatives passed a bill Thursday that was inspired by a Moncks Corner native who found herself in a scholarship predicament.

Rachel Nussbaum, a 2015 graduate of Berkeley High, finished near the top of her class and earned the Palmetto Fellows scholarship, which is worth about $7,500 a year for most students. But her finances took a hit when she decided to take her first two years of classes at Trident Technical College in North Charleston. Thanks to a provision in state law, she was automatically bumped down to the $5,000 LIFE Scholarship.

When she transferred to the Medical University of South Carolina's nursing program, she was locked in at the lower rate, missing out on thousands of dollars in financial aid that could have helped her pay for tuition and textbooks.

"I remember having those sorts of thoughts ... ‘Well, man, all those extra times that I took the ACT, the times I worried about being at the top of my class — I could have not even worried about that. I could just have done less.’ And that’s not a great state of mind to have, and that’s not one that students should have," Nussbaum said.

House Bill 3936 would allow recipients of the Palmetto Fellows scholarship to use up to the full value of the scholarship toward tuition at a public two-year or technical college, and to keep the scholarship at that level if they later transfer to a four-year college or university in the state.

Few students currently follow Nussbaum's path under the current scholarship system, according to the S.C. Commission on Higher Education. In a fiscal impact statement attached to the bill, the CHE reported that over the past two years, only 13 students declined the Palmetto Fellows scholarship so they could attend a two-year institution.

Going by that estimate, the state Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office estimated that the change in scholarship policy would cost the state only an additional $24,500 per year, to be covered by excess lottery proceeds or the state General Fund.

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Rachel Nussbaum fills a bottle with medicine for a customer at Berkeley Home Pharmacy in Moncks Corner on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019. Nussbaum recently took an unorthodox path to a nursing degree — and discovered a weakness in South Carolina's college scholarship system. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

If the bill becomes law, it would come too late to help Nussbaum, but she said she hopes to encourage more students like her to consider technical college as a cost-saving option.

Cathy Almquist, vice president for academic affairs at Trident Technical College, said the change in the law would likely affect students' finances more directly than the college's.

"Every student who has those capabilities has all the options in front of them. None of them should be shut off. If you’re at the top of your class, you should have your pick of any of these colleges," Almquist said.

Almquist added that academically gifted students shouldn't be discouraged from choosing a technical education.

"Even those high flyers, even those top-performing students, if they want to pursue a technical discipline, we should be their choice," Almquist said.

The bill passed the house in time for the April 10 crossover deadline, meaning it could become law this year if it passes in the Senate. 

Nussbaum traveled to Columbia to testify in favor of the bill this year, and she has been following along via a Statehouse application on her smart phone. She also has received text message updates from her state representative, Rep. Sylleste Davis, R-Moncks Corner. 

Before the bill gained traction, Nussbaum said she had nearly given up on changing the scholarship law. She said she reached out to several prominent lawmakers about the issue, but none were interested until she contacted Davis.

"When this first came about and I realized this was happening to me, I had a fire inside me and I said, ‘I’m going to change this, I’m going to do something about it,'" Nussbaum said. "Everybody says this is government at work, this is the people standing up — and people do need to stand together, but it takes a little more than that. It takes electing the right people."

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.