COLUMBIA — They are loved, and they are lauded.
But South Carolina's two-year and technical colleges, bursting at the seams with an ever-expanding number of students, get much less money from the state than their four-year counterparts.
Still, political leaders at the state and national level say it is two-year and technical schools - with their lower costs, more open admissions policies and their blue-collar training programs - that will produce the more educated, better-prepared work force that South Carolina needs for the 21st century.
"We have to understand this is the backbone to our jobs," Gov. Nikki Haley said during a news conference with technical college presidents last month. "Our technical colleges are the ones that need our support. They need it financially. They need it from a press perspective."
Haley's message was similar to the one delivered by President Obama, who has launched a federal initiative to boost funding to two-year and technical schools. The president called such schools "the unsung heroes of America's education system."
With unemployment and the cost of four-year colleges surging, two-year and technical colleges in South Carolina have experienced an enrollment boom over the past several years, according to figures from the State Commission on Higher Education.
Two-year college officials say more high school students are turning to their institutions as tuition has become more expensive at four-year schools. Also, many adults have turned to two-year schools to be retrained for a new job or to get a certification to move up in the one they already have.
In fall 2010, 101,880 students attended two-year and technical colleges in South Carolina, an increase of nearly 36 percent from fall 2002. By contrast, four-year schools saw their enrollment rise by 11.5 percent during that same period.
The number of two-year and technical college students was almost equal to the 103,200 students who attended four-year schools last fall.
Both sets of institutions have had to cope with sharp budget cuts during this economic downturn, but the budget blade has been slightly sharper for two-year and technical schools.
Four-year schools received a combined $394.6 million in state money in fiscal year 2009-2010 - 29 percent less than in 2001-2002. Two-year and technical colleges, some of which get county tax revenue, received a combined $120.8 million from the state - 31 percent less than in 2001-2002.
It's not showing up yet in state appropriations, but two-year and technical colleges are gaining respect from state and national leaders, said Marshall White, president of Midlands Technical College.
"They really have focused on the value of the two-year colleges in this nation," White said. "That has elevated our stature nationally."
'Stigma is no longer there'
There was a time when attending a two-year or technical college was seen by students and parents as an inferior option when compared to attending a four-year college or university.
That's not the case any more, said Micheal Keitt, guidance director at Lower Richland High School.
"That stigma is no longer there," said Keitt, who has been at Lower Richland for eight years. "Most parents, they'd love for their students to have that four-year experience. But they understand they can still have that four-year experience at a cheaper cost."
With bridge programs that seamlessly move students from two-year and technical schools on to a four-year college or university, students have heard that message, too.
"They're coming to me and they're saying, 'Mom and Dad, they don't have the most money, and I didn't qualify for all of the scholarships I could have gotten. I'm going to a technical college,'" Keitt said.
Just over 20 percent of those who completed high school in South Carolina in 2000-2001 went on to a two-year or technical school, according to figures from the S.C. Department of Education. By 2007-2008, the most recent figures available, 27 percent of those who completed high school chose to continue their education at a two-year or technical college.