In the technical college experience of two-year associate degrees, diplomas and certificates, six S.C. state senators have introduced a legislative measure that would introduce a perhaps unexpected opportunity – a three-year technical college program.

S.C. Tom Young, R-Aiken, was asked to join the group as a co-sponsor, he said on Tuesday.

“This is economic development from a perspective of being able to get additional companies,” he said.

A key proponent of the bill is Sen. Sean Bennett, R-Summerville. He had conversations with the other senators, as well as with the S.C. Department of Commerce, about private sector issues.

There's an educational “hole” in terms of advanced manufacturing training, Bennett said.

“We have seen a potential, labeling this a three-year degree, not an associate or four-year degree,” he said. “The discussion is that the technical schools are doing the bulk of that work. By statute, we can't do any of this (yet).”

The bill only has been filed at this stage and would have to get to a Senate subcommittee to even begin the legislative process.

Young readily acknowledged he was asked to serve as a co-sponsor and is not yet directly involved in the measure.

However, he recognizes a gap in technical education.

“The state has got to find a better way of training people for advanced manufacturing,” Young said. “This requires a specialized training beyond an associate degree.”

The concept is not intended to create a program that is three-fourths of a four-year baccalaureate degree, Bennett said. Advanced manufacturing would be valuable to a company such as Boeing – both for the prospective employees and by improving the nation's economy, he said.

The senators are at “day zero,” Bennett said. As, or even if, the measure moves through the Senate, more discussion would emerge as to instruction, facility needs and cost.

Aiken Technical College administrators are aware of the legislation that would allow the technical college system to offer such a three-year degree, Bryan Newton, ATC's associate vice president for marketing and enrollment, said in a press release.

“At this time, we do not know the details of how a three-year degree would be implemented,” Newton said. “We thank our legislators for their continued concern about improving higher education access for all South Carolinians.”

The prospective initiative intrigues Dr. Tim Yarborough, the Aiken County School District's high school academic officer. Students attending the Aiken County Career and Technology Center are learning more about technology and science integration.

“This could be a hybrid,” Yarborough said of the three-year concept. “We hope our kids from our career and technology center – with programs like megatronics, electricity, CAAD and machine tools – could get a leg up at tech schools. All of that could lead them to advanced manufacturing.”

Colleges and universities probably have the capability to do a three-year program, Bennett said. It's about making sure who is best suited to provide the program.

Dr. Sandra Jordan, USC Aiken chancellor, said she considers the bill's language unclear and currently is gathering information to determine its impact on four-year institutions of higher education.

Again, the three-year training concept would have to get to subcommittee status, Young said, before any concerns and likely amendments would be introduced.

“That's part of the process to address the needs through existing channels or new legislation,” he said.

Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard's education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001. He is a native of Walterboro and majored in journalism at the University of Georgia.