Rachel Nussbaum chose an uncommon path after she graduated near the top of her class at Berkeley High School in 2015 — and she paid an unexpected price for it.
While the rest of her college-bound peers were heading off to four-year institutions to earn their bachelor's degrees, Nussbaum decided to enroll at Trident Technical College to complete her prerequisite courses before transferring to the Medical University of South Carolina's nursing school.
She figured she could save money, avoid taking unnecessary courses, and even graduate a semester early if she stayed focused.
"I ran my numbers, ran my figures, and this was the smartest way to do it," said Nussbaum, 21.
It wasn't until her first semester at Trident that she learned about an unfortunate quirk in South Carolina's lottery-funded scholarship program. While her strong academic record from high school qualified her to receive up to $7,500 per year under the Palmetto Fellows Scholarship, her decision to attend a two-year technical college meant she could only receive up to $5,000 a year under the less prestigious LIFE Scholarship.
When she finished at Trident and transferred to MUSC, she was locked in at the LIFE rate, missing out on thousands of dollars per year that she could have used for tuition, books and lab fees.
A new bill introduced in the S.C. House of Representatives would prevent high-performing students like Nussbaum from paying a penalty for starting at a two-year or technical college. By adding a single sentence to state law, House Bill 3936 would pave the way for more students to follow in her footsteps:
"A student who uses a Palmetto Fellows Scholarship to attend an eligible two-year institution shall receive a maximum of four continuous semesters, and may continue to use the scholarship to attend an eligible four-year institution, subject to maximum number of semesters for which the student may be eligible for scholarship."
State Rep. Sylleste Davis, R-Moncks Corner, said she introduced the bill because Nussbaum, a constituent, brought the problem to her attention.
Any change in the state scholarship law would come too late to benefit Nussbaum personally, but Nussbaum said she hopes it will inspire younger students to consider technical college.
"She sent me an email and said, ‘You know, this doesn’t seem right,’ and I looked at it and said, ‘You know, you’re right, this doesn’t seem right. Let’s fix that,'" Davis said.
"That's exactly what we need," Davis added. "We need people who are engaged."
The S.C. Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office has not released an estimate of what the change would cost taxpayers.
Trident Tech, the largest technical college in the state, could not say how many students find themselves in a similar situation to Nussbaum's. A spokesman confirmed that the financial aid office has fielded questions from students about Palmetto Fellows eligibility before.
If the bill passes, its impact would extend statewide. At USC-Salkehatchie, a rural branch of the University of South Carolina offering two- and four-year programs, assistant professor of history David W. Dangerfield said students there could use the help.
The Salkehatchie campus is situated in Allendale County, one of the poorest counties in the United States. Dangerfield said some students there earn admission to four-year colleges, only to call off their plans after finding out what the tuition will cost.
"Our brightest students are looking for the most sensible and most affordable way to access higher education," he said. "Particularly for those who are going on to graduate school, they don’t want to rack up a lot of student debt early on."
Despite the scholarship setback, Nussbaum stuck to her plan. She graduated in December with a bachelor's degree from MUSC — a semester earlier than her peers, just as she had hoped.
She plans to return in the fall for a graduate program that will qualify her as a nurse practitioner. Currently, she is working in her parents' Moncks Corner pharmacy as a technician, a job she held throughout her undergraduate career.
Looking back, Nussbaum said she initially felt "embarrassed" to stay with her parents and attend technical college when all her friends were packing their bags for freshman dorms. Now she believes she made the right choice.
"I feel like people view Trident and other two-year institutions like they’re less-than or their classes are easier, or the students who go there aren’t trying to succeed," Nussbaum said. "A lot of kids were doing the things I was doing, and they were doing it to save money."
The House bill is pending in the House Education and Public Works Committee. It is co-sponsored by Rep. Joseph Daning, R-Goose Creek.