Beaufort County is known as a vacation destination that attracts visitors galore, so it might be a little difficult to imagine that the Lowcountry is also where more than 4,000 college students live, work and study.

They move between nine campuses and several learning centers in two counties that fall under the auspices of the University of South Carolina-Beaufort (USCB) and the Technical College of the Lowcountry (TCL).

USCB offers 39 areas of study within 19 bachelor’s degree programs, two master’s degree programs, and two associate’s degree programs, and recently launched a cybersecurity concentration after being awarded a Department of Defense grant and becoming a collaborative partner in the South Coast Cyber Center.

TCL offers more than 60 programs that provide associate’s degrees, diplomas, certificates, continuing education and workforce training. Students can complete their educational goals at TCL or begin there and transfer credits to another college or university.

For some students, such as USCB senior Kaylee Aiken, attending a four-year college has always been the plan.

“Since I was little, I wanted to go to college, get that education, learn new things, and have that accomplishment,” said Aiken. “I’m a commuter student because I live in Beaufort with my family. It would be easier to live on campus, but with family close by, it was great to have that support system during college. Living on campus would give you the opportunity to do more things, though.”

That is one of the pluses of campus life.

“Part of the collegiate experience includes the opportunity for students to explore interests beyond the classroom. Many of these co-curricular opportunities are designed to support the holistic well-being of students and to prepare them for life beyond college,” said Angela D. Simmons, USCB vice chancellor for student development.

“Specifically, student engagement experiences provide the opportunity for students to learn leadership skills, work in teams, and solve real world problems in a supportive environment.”

Despite not living on campus, Aiken still has what she deems to be a rewarding college experience. Among other activities, she has been a mentor to public health majors – guiding new students on what classes to take, helping them understand the courses they are taking while figuring out a plan for their college career.

“With USCB there is a lot of diversity, which I really love. I got to meet a variety of people with different backgrounds. The professors here are amazing, and I love the atmosphere here,” Aiken said.

She is majoring in public health and plans to go into social work after she graduates in December.

“My philosophy is if you are considering college to make sure that you know what the qualifications are for the job that you want at the moment, so that if you have to go to college to get a license, you can plan,” said Aiken.

Eric Skipper, USCB’s Provost, said there are many things to consider when thinking about pursuing higher education.

“It depends on the student’s interests and desired career path. Many students are still learning as they go. They come to the university undecided, and while taking general education courses find something that appeals to them,” Skipper said. ‘This can happen at a university or at a two-year school because curriculum during the first two years is very similar for both.”

What happens after that depends on what the student wants to pursue. “Students leaving the two-year college after completing a certificate or the associate’s degree can immediately enter the workforce in a vocational or applied way,” Skipper said, “whereas the student completing the four-year degree will have a broader foundation for not only their career path but for continual learning.”

TCL graduate Alysha Kromm is one of those students who was undecided when she began college. As a military family member, she spent her life traveling, and met her husband in Okinawa.

“I’d tried college very many times before but it didn’t work out – whether I was moving, had a lack of drive – all the excuses I could come up with. But definitely, this time it felt different to me,” Kromm said. “I applied to TCL the summer of 2020, and began my first semester in the fall. It was my fifth attempt at college. I was a stay-at home mom for 10 years so I didn’t have a sense of a career. I know I really enjoyed working with people in an office, and this opened the door to me.”

Kromm graduated in May with an associate’s degree in administrative office technology. She is now a financial aid specialist at TCL and plans to earn a bachelor’s degree in business administration online through Southern New Hampshire University.

“It was the TCL program that attracted me. It was built to put you in the work force and hit the job running,” she said. “I needed something that was attainable in a reasonable time frame, something that was affordable, and something that was flexible with being a mom and a wife.”

Not only did Kromm complete the program, but as she studied, she served as a TCL Student Ambassador, is a member of Phi Theta Kappa and the National Society of Collegiate Scholars, and graduated magna cum laude. At graduation, Kromm was selected to be the student speaker.

“My message was pretty much ‘nothing changes if you change nothing.’ I highlighted the fact that we’re the only ones who can change in life, and shared my story of how I was tired of not having a sense of self-worth and not having a career,” she said. “The only way that was going to change was if I did something about it.”

The speed with which a tech school student can become employed is what appeals to those who want to enter the work force quickly.

“We think that tech school is invaluable, mostly because it keeps our economy moving. Our students graduate with real world skills that go directly into the work force that improve our daily lives,” said Leigh Copeland, TCL’s assistant vice president for marketing and public relations. “For example, we all need HVAC professionals, especially this time of year. We all need nurses and medical techs that know their jobs and know what they’re doing, and we offer those kinds of skills. A commercial driver’s license, welding, certified nursing assistant – those take just a couple of months to complete. On the other side of the house, what we call our credit side, are the certificate, diploma and associate degree programs that can be completed in two years or less.”

Some of TCL’s programs fill a need that supplements training at other educational facilities.

“The pre-police academy was created to fill a need in South Carolina because the police academy cannot get people through fast enough,” Copeland said, “and this puts people into the field right away until they can go through the academy later.”

While technical schools and colleges provide education in many fields, one does not have to specialize to get an excellent job.

“Students graduating with a liberal arts degree have a broad range of opportunities. With a broad-base education, they are quick to adapt to new scenarios and learn new skills,” said USCB’s Skipper. “As liberal arts students, they have basically learned how to learn. The World Economic Forum’s job report notes that students with liberal arts degrees are broad-based learners, equipped to enter the job field with skills that can be adapted to a rapidly changing tech-driven economy.”

Freshman enrollment fluctuates for both colleges. For TCL, the expectation at the beginning of the pandemic was that theirs would increase more than normal.

“Usually as an economy decreases, community college enrollments increase, but we haven’t seen that. What we are seeing is we are competing with a very strong job market,” said Copeland. “What we are trying to do is increase our flexibility so students can attend when they can, which is one class a semester.”

TCL offers more than 150 classes online each semester, including some programs that can be completed fully online.

“For many of our students, a technical college education means a more affordable and flexible option that can lead to a better paying job, but one thing we also like to stress is the role community college plays not only in the lives of our students, but in the health and stability of the communities we serve,” said TCL President Richard Gough. “It’s all designed to meet the needs of our students where they live and ensure that they are successful in life – whether they plan to work and stay here in our community or go on to a four-year college or further their education elsewhere.”

One thing that is not rapidly changing but may be a new experience is getting into one of these schools. For those coming straight from high school, guidance counselors will have been on hand to help students fill out forms and maneuver through the many bailiwicks that comprise the application process.

For those who have been out of school for 5, 10 or 20 years, it can be confusing. TCL received a grant a few years ago to create a process that helped students go from point A to point B to graduation.

“Pathway to the Future gives us lots of resources to supplement the student’s journey from street to seat and beyond. We have been able to provide a number of navigators who stay with our students from application to enrollment to graduation. Every student gets a navigator,” Copeland said. “We serve many students from every background and every age who are unfamiliar with the college process because many of these students are first generation students.”

At USCB, students also receive assistance in transitioning to university life.

“Fall and Spring New Student Orientation are designed to provide students with the information they need to be successful both in and out of the classroom. In addition, the University 101 course is designed as a tool to support student success, and provides helpful information related to academic and social integration,” said Simmons of USCB. “Students also are assigned academic advisors who help students make choices related to courses and on-time degree completion.”

One of the limiting factors to enrolling could be the cost. College is expensive, even though there are scholarships, financial aid and student loans available. That has become an issue for past, present and future students.

Aiken will have $20,000 to help pay off $40,000 when she graduates, about half of what her cost was.

“I have the South Carolina LIFE Scholarship. I also work and have financial aid as well,” she said. “A lot of people who go to college take out loans. … That’s why I stayed locally so I could save money, and that way move on to another school and accomplish my master’s.”

The Legislative Incentive for Future Excellence (LIFE) Scholarship is a merit-based program administered by the financial aid office at each eligible public and independent college and university in South Carolina.

Students who attend TCL can also get financial aid and scholarships. The Technical College of the Lowcountry is offering paid tuition and fees through the summer 2022 semester for those who qualify and want to begin or continue their education.

There are as many ways to get an education as there are reasons, and the significance goes beyond cost.

“The value of higher education is that students are not simply learning how to succeed in one job or career. They are developing skill sets that add value across industries, decades, and geographies,” said Anna Ponder, executive director of the USCB Education Foundation and Vice Chancellor, University Advancement. “What students learn not only in classrooms but beyond them in co-curricular experiential settings is invaluable because soft skills – like collaboration, teamwork, critical thinking, and communication – are limitless, borderless, and form the basis of an overall adaptability that is absolutely critical for 21st-century careers.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.