You can’t miss Robert Jenkins. As he waits for class to start in a student lounge area at Trident Technical College, strangers walk up and give him high-fives. One student passes by humming the Spider-Man theme. Another asks Jenkins to pose for a picture.

What grabs their attention, of course, is Jenkins’ air-brushed Spidey costume, one of about 40 homemade outfits in his wardrobe paying homage to everyone from Michael Jackson to the Incredible Hulk. But what most people don’t know about Jenkins is that he has been unemployed since he moved to North Charleston in September 2011 to take care of his ailing mother. They don’t know about his dream of learning how to use graphic design software and selling locally produced merchandise to tourists. And they don’t know that, although he’s eligible to receive $1,140 worth of lottery-funded tuition assistance for his fall semester of classes at Trident, he won’t get a penny of it.

Here’s the problem with South Carolina’s Lottery Tuition Assistance Program for two-year colleges: It provides no assistance whatsoever to some of the state’s neediest students. In Jenkins’ case, tuition and fees come out to $1,930.12 for the current fall semester — and fortunately for him, a $2,100 federal Pell grant covers that cost. But because his tuition is already covered, and because state law dictates that two-year tuition assistance can only be spent on tuition, he’s not receiving any of the state lottery money that shows up on his financial aid forms.

In addition to the tuition-only stipulation, the law requires that two-year Lottery Tuition Assitance money has to be applied to tuition after federal need-based Pell grants. The two-year assistance is different from the lottery-funded LIFE scholarship, an up-to-$2,350-a-semester award that can be disbursed to students as an overage check if their total scholarships for a semester exceed the cost of tuition. Some two-year students are eligible for the LIFE, which has minimum requirements for GPA and SAT scores, but not many: In the fall 2011 semester, 389 Trident students received LIFE scholarships, compared to 5,102 who received Lottery Tuition Assistance.

The reason all of this matters is that the cost of college is always more than just tuition. That phantom $1,140 would go a long way toward buying textbooks, bus fare, art supplies, and everything else he needs for class. He bought a refurbished MacBook this summer for $500, but he still hasn’t gotten together the roughly $350 to buy the Adobe software suite he needs for a design class.

The net result of Jenkins’ financial situation is that, rather than getting an overage check for the lottery money (as many students at four-year colleges do), he takes out student loans. But even the loan money didn’t come in until mid-September, nearly a month after classes started, so he turned to the only people he knew would help: the Economic Empowerment Justice League.

The Justice League

If you think you recognize Robert Jenkins and his sartorial nods to comic book heroes, it might be from the relentless media coverage of Occupy Charleston last year. It was at a December 2011 Occupy event, a symbolic funeral march for the First Amendment, that Jenkins first met Kathi Regalbuto, a like-minded Occupier from Summerville whose son had recently graduated college and who was interested in matters of inequality in higher education.

Together, Jenkins and Regalbuto formed an Occupy Charleston splinter group with the appropriately outsize moniker Economic Empowerment Justice League. “We wanted to point out to Occupy Charleston that some of the people in the group were the people that needed help,” Jenkins says.

When Jenkins started taking classes at Trident this summer and realized he was going to come up short for school supplies, Regalbuto and a few other EEJL members floated him the money until he could pay them back with the student loan money. Then Regalbuto set out to fix what she saw as a broken system. “I think in general there is an injustice about the lottery funds,” she says.

Regalbuto started a petition on calling for state legislators to amend the laws about how lottery-funded tuition assistance is disbursed to two-year college students.

Her proposal is that only 50 percent of a student’s Pell grant money should be applied toward tuition at first, allowing lottery money to cover the rest and leaving the remaining half of the Pell money to help cover non-tuition expenses. She has also written to her state legislators, but she hasn’t heard anything back yet.

Michelle List, a retired bookseller in Summerville, was an early signer of the petition. She says she was amazed when she learned how the state treated Pell grant recipients. “Why penalize the people who really need it?” List says. “It just seems like the law is intentionally written to penalize the people who need it most.”

To paraphrase List’s question: Why is the state’s two-year college assistance assistance program for tuition only, while the scholarships that many four-year students receive can be used for more than just tuition? A representative at Trident’s financial aid office says the matter is out of the school’s hands. “That is a state regulation that unfortunately we have to follow,” she says. Holly Armstrong, a spokesperson for the Education Lottery, doesn’t have an answer either. “We just make the money and then transfer it,” she says.

The policy comes from the state legislature, which, for one reason or another, wrote in the 2001 law establishing the lottery that two-year tuition assistance would include “the amount charged for registering for credit hours of instruction and academic fees, less all federal grants and need-based grants, and does not include other fees, charges, or costs of textbooks.” This is not the case for other lottery-funded scholarships like LIFE, which can the cover cost of attendance, not just the cost of tuition.

According to Cathy Almquist, the Trident’s director of institutional research and assessment, 57 percent of Pell recipients (5,159 out of 8,982) also received student loans in fall 2011. That semester, 611 students received the state-funded Need-Based Grant, a limited fund for the neediest students, but that still left a sizeable portion of federal Pell grant recipients who needed additional money to cover school expenses.

Technical college students represent the largest higher-education population in South Carolina, accounting for over 98,000 of the 208,000 students enrolled in public colleges as of fall 2011. And Radhika Singh Miller, the program manager for educational debt relief at the national nonprofit organization Equal Justice Works, says the tuition-only distinction for two-year students is unusual compared to other state programs.

“It’s actually a pretty unique law because it’s restricted just to tuition,” Miller says. “A lot of other states have similar grants — HOPE, Lifetime Learning Grants, all those sorts of things … and they’ll encompass the cost of attendance, which includes room and board, book expenses, the need to buy a computer.”

According to a nationwide 2009 study by the Institute for College Access & Success, community college students are more likely than four-year students to receive Pell grants, but they are also less likely to receive state grants and grants from their colleges. “It’s not because they don’t need aid,” says Debbie Cochrane, research director at TICAS. “Community college students still face the same exact types of costs that students at four-year colleges face, but they get far less aid to cover those costs.”

To sign Kathi Regalbuto’s petition, click here. To learn more about Robert Jenkins’ superhero-inspired outfits, click here.

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