A decade of opportunity

Gamecock Guarantee opens doors to success for S.C. students

Year after year, the number of lives transformed by the University of South Carolina’s Gamecock Guarantee program keeps growing. But numbers alone don’t tell the full story.

Numbers first: 10 years ago, Gamecock Guarantee began providing financial aid to cover four consecutive years of tuition and technology fees for first-generation, low-income students from South Carolina admitted to USC. That first cohort was 94 freshmen; the total of participants has now grown to 1,449, with an impressive 71 percent six-year graduation rate.

Beyond the numbers, the program is opening doors for bright students who might not otherwise have the means to attend college, breaking a cycle of poverty within families and inspiring whole communities.

“Just the excitement they have when they get that letter telling them Gamecock Guarantee exists and they’re invited to join the program — they can’t believe the amount of support they will receive,” says Ashley Bailey-Taylor, assistant director of financial aid and scholarships for Gamecock Guarantee.

“When they graduate and get a good job, it changes their whole situation,” Bailey-Taylor says. Siblings often follow in their path, and in low-income communities where hopes for higher education are not the norm, graduates who benefited from Gamecock Guarantee prove that a college degree is a real possibility.

Lyric Swinton, a junior majoring in sport and entertainment management, remembers well the day her Gamecock Guarantee letter arrived. An overachieving high school student, she was confident that top grades, excellent test scores and extensive extracurriculars would get her into college — and they did. But her family had no way to pay for it.

“Even the enrollment deposit was going to put us in a deep hole,” Swinton recalls. Then a letter arrived from USC, saying Gamecock Guarantee “would pay for my education for four years. My mom and my grandma were so happy!”

Making the most of every opportunity, Swinton serves in Student Government and other leadership and mentoring roles. She recently wowed the crowd at the inaugural TEDxUofSC event as the only student on a roster of accomplished speakers.

“It all started with the Opportunity Scholars Program — without that window of opportunity, nothing else would have happened, even TEDx,” Swinton says. OSP is one of the three academic support arms of Gamecock Guarantee — along with Capstone Scholars and Honors College — that participants must enroll in. Providing smaller freshman classes, personal academic support, guidance through financial and administrative paperwork, and an interactive community of peers, these three programs help ensure that Gamecock Guarantee students have all the resources — in addition to financial support — needed to complete their education.

Swinton says her younger sister witnessed that confidence-boosting support and “sense of family,” swaying her to enroll at USC, where she is majoring in nursing as part of the newest cohort of Gamecock Guarantee freshmen.

“For over a decade, our Gamecock Guarantee program has provided an important pathway for first-generation students to attain a college degree,” President Harris Pastides says. “By removing financial hurdles, we are opening paths for more of South Carolina’s most academically talented students to achieve the future of their dreams.”

The financial support is critical, of course, says Althea Counts, who works with Gamecock Guarantee as director of federal TRIO Programs at Carolina. “But getting them here, helping them feel they belong and that USC is a place they can be successful is just as important,” she says.

One of the first Gamecock Guarantee students, Darrius Daniels, 2012 geography, now works in live TV production as a media operator at ESPN. Being a first-generation college student can be overwhelming, he says, especially for applicants trying to navigate admissions applications and financial aid requirements with minimal family resources. “College is enough in itself that young people should never have to worry about how to pay for it. That peace of mind was worth everything. I’m thankful to Gamecock Guarantee for making college accessible for people like me.”

Graduates of the program have gone on to earn advanced and professional degrees, continue studies abroad, open their own businesses, and make their marks in a variety of careers, Counts says.

Chad Devlin, 2012 criminology and criminal justice, 2015 law, was part of the first cohort of Gamecock Guarantee recipients in 2008. Now an associate attorney at the Nelson Mullins law firm in Columbia, he credits the structure and resources provided through the Opportunity Scholars Program with laying a foundation for his academic success. “That program was a stepping stone for me for getting into law school,” Devlin says.

Gamecock Guarantee recipients meet the same admissions requirements and academic standards as any other student, but to be eligible for financial assistance — a minimum of $4,500 per year — their family income can be no more than 150 percent of poverty level. The average family income for a freshman in Gamecock Guarantee is $17,637.

Of the most recent cohort who earned degrees within four years, 38 percent graduated with no student loan debt.

In addition to institutional funding, Gamecock Guarantee is sustained by gifts from supporters. The recently established Aisha S. Haynes Endowed Scholarship Fund is one example. Haynes, assistant director of the university's Center for Teaching Excellence, came to Carolina as a low-income student and Opportunity Scholars participant in 2000, before Gamecock Guarantee existed. Knowing how well the Opportunity Scholars Program bolstered her college success, she recently established the fund for first-generation, low-income seniors at Carolina, providing additional aid to help them complete their degrees.