The South Carolina Democrat, who has no vote in how lottery funds are spent, called on lawmakers this week to give more of the lottery's scholarship money to children from low-income families.
"The current structure of receiving lottery-funded Palmetto, LIFE or HOPE scholarships provides a disproportionate awarding of grants that do not have to be paid back to students from upper-income families and loans to students from lower-income families that must be paid back," Mr. Clyburn told state legislators in a joint session of the General Assembly. "We should put all educational pursuits on equal footing."
This week, the Senate Finance Committee increased the amount of money available for need-based scholarships by $2.5 million to $13.7 million. The budget bill still needs full Senate approval before differences between the House and Senate budgets can be worked out.
South Carolina puts about 20 percent of scholarship funds into need-based grants for low-income families. Just three Southeastern states give a smaller percentage of state aid based on need.
The trend toward merit-based aid is growing in the South, said Alan Richard, a spokesman for the Southern Regional Education Board.
"If you come from a poor family and attend a struggling high school, are you going to be able to qualify for a LIFE scholarship?" Mr. Richard said. "Many people do, but we're not reaching everyone we need to reach."
Mr. Clyburn said students who qualify for the state's scholarships for high achievers also qualify for other scholarships.
"Students who get the smaller HOPE scholarships are forced to take out loans to attend college," he said. "They will leave college with a big debt, while students who do not need the additional scholarships leave college with no debt."
Many lawmakers agree.
"That's always been the position of the Legislative Black Caucus," said Rep. Joe Neal, D-Richland. "Our greatest need is among our poorest families, and it is not getting to them. A college education has become an impossibility for many of our poorest young people."