Gamecock Guarantee: A Proven Success
By Scott Verzyl
The University of South Carolina is providing low-income, first-generation students with the dream of a lifetime — earning a college degree.
It is well-documented that gaps in college attendance and degree attainment by socioeconomic status have existed since the inception of state-funded colleges and universities. This is a concern to the University of South Carolina, as the median household income in South Carolina is $46,898 and only 26.5% of adults over the age of 25 have completed a bachelor’s degree (as compared to 28% nationally, according to the U.S. Census Bureau), ranking in the lowest income bracket, as compared to the other 49 states.
We have long known that earning a college degree improves one’s life in many ways: higher salary, access to healthcare, retirement options, job security and satisfaction, a decreased likelihood of developing depression, more likely to be at a healthy weight, less likely to use tobacco products, more likely to be involved in the community, more apt to vote and even to live a longer life. Research has shown that these benefits are also passed along to the children of parents who have a college degree. Unfortunately, students who come from low-income families are less likely to recognize the value in earning a college degree and may be less willing and able to finance the cost of college attendance.
For the past 50 years, the cost of college has risen at a much faster rate than have median family wages, meaning that tuition (as a share of family income) has increased steadily. While the numbers of students attending college in the United States have grown steadily, college attendance and completion rates for students from low-income families continue to fall significantly behind their peers from higher income brackets.
We at the University of South Carolina are doing something about it.
Ten years ago, the University of South Carolina started with a vision and mission to help improve the collegiate experience of our financially neediest first-generation college students. The unique challenges that these students face all lead back to one barrier—affordability.
In 2008, USC created a new program called the Gamecock Guarantee that provides first-generation college students an opportunity to gain access to a quality education, academic support and a coordinated network of social support. These students meet the same admission criteria as the rest of the freshman class, but they share one striking difference—an average family income of less than $18,000 per year.
Through coordinated efforts of the Office of Student Financial Aid and Scholarships, TRIO, Office of Undergraduate Admissions, Capstone Scholars Program and the South Carolina Honors College, the Gamecock Guarantee program was created to recruit, retain and graduate low-income and first-generation students from the University of South Carolina. We have seen tremendous success with the program. Since inception, we have matriculated 1,449 first-generation students with a combined family income that is not more than 150% of the Health and Human Services Poverty Guidelines, and we have been able to meet on average 90 percent of each student’s overall cost of attendance.
We closely track our Gamecock Guarantee students and the outcomes are remarkable. The students in the Gamecock Guarantee program are returning at rates far beyond the highest income level category of students!
Students receive a minimum financial aid package of $4,500 per year for up to four years, that, when combined with state scholarships and other aid, “guarantees” that at least the cost of tuition and technology fees will be covered for students. But financial assistance is not enough. The financial support of the Gamecock Guarantee is coupled with required participation in program support. Recipients must be enrolled in either the Opportunity Scholars Program, the Capstone Scholars Program or the South Carolina Honors College after being awarded the Gamecock Guarantee. Program support encourages the continued development of the strengths that are characteristic of first-generation and low-income students: a strong sense of independence, resiliency and pride. Program faculty and staff also teach participants skills to help ease their transition to college life.
We closely track our Gamecock Guarantee students and the outcomes are remarkable. The students in the Gamecock Guarantee program are returning at rates far beyond the highest income level category of students! At the six-year mark, the Gamecock Guarantee students are graduating at rates above their low-income peers and on par with the overall university graduation rate of 71%, proving that the achievement gap can be eliminated.
Gamecock Guarantee participants also learn how to manage debt successfully. Participants in the program graduate with significantly less debt over the course of four years — 47 percent less than the national student loan average. One goal for the program is to provide a loan-free education. We are not there yet, but we are making progress.
As I reflect on the many accomplishments that the university has achieved under President Pastides’s leadership, I am particularly proud of the work that we have done with the Gamecock Guarantee program. Since its inception, the Gamecock Guarantee program has been a resounding success. While we cannot eliminate all of the roadblocks first-generation and low-income students will encounter, we are providing critical resources and support networks to assist them while they work toward completing a bachelor’s degree. These students set a high bar with grit, perseverance and determination. All of these characteristics embody the heart of a leader—and that is what being a Carolinian is all about.
As we take time to celebrate ten years of academic excellence with the Gamecock Guarantee, it is important to mention that this program would not be possible without the generous support of donors. Each year, the University of South Carolina contributes $5.5 billion to the state’s economy. Gamecock Guarantee alumni are a part of this contribution. Through the Gamecock Guarantee, we will continue making a difference and inspiring the next generation to change the world one contribution at a time. If you'd like, please consider giving the gift of access to a Gamecock Guarantee student.
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