Pension Flexibility: South Carolina

Retaining Effective Teachers Policy


The state should ensure that pension systems are portable, flexible and fair to all teachers.

Nearly meets goal
Suggested Citation:
National Council on Teacher Quality. (2011). Pension Flexibility: South Carolina results. State Teacher Policy Database. [Data set].
Retrieved from:

Analysis of South Carolina's policies

South Carolina offers the option of a defined contribution plan or a defined benefit plan for all teachers. The state provides new teachers with very informative literature describing the advantages, disadvantages and estimated benefit payouts for both types of plans. New teachers must then choose one plan within 30 days of their start of employment; if no plan is chosen, teachers are automatically enrolled in the defined benefit plan and may not switch. Teachers who elect to join the defined contribution plan may switch to the defined benefit plan within their first five years of service during an annual open enrollment period; however, for each year they wish to purchase, they must pay 16 percent of their highest salary. This is an unfortunate structure that may not allow teachers to make the best decisions. However, the state is commended for also offering two fully portable supplementary savings plans. Teachers in South Carolina also participate in Social Security. 

South Carolina's defined benefit plan is not fully portable, does not vest until year five and does not provide any employer contribution for teachers who withdraw their accounts. The state does offer flexibility through reasonable provisions to purchase years of service. 

Vesting in a defined benefit plan guarantees a teacher's eligibility to receive lifetime monthly benefit payments at retirement age. Nonvested teachers do not have a right to later retirement benefits; they may only withdraw the portion of their funds allowed by the plan. South Carolina's defined benefit plan's vesting at five years of service limits the options of teachers who leave the system prior to this point.

Teachers in the defined benefit plan who choose to withdraw their contributions upon leaving only receive their own employee contributions plus interest. This means that those who withdraw their funds accrue fewer benefits than what they might have earned had they simply put their contributions in basic savings accounts. Further, teachers who remain in the field of education but enter another pension plan (such as in another state) will find it difficult to purchase the time equivalent to their prior employment in the new system because they are not entitled to any employer contribution. 

South Carolina's defined benefit plan does increase teachers' flexibility within its provisions to purchase years of service. The ability to purchase time is important because defined benefit plans' retirement eligibility and benefit payments are often tied to the number of years a teacher has worked. South Carolina's plan allows teachers to purchase an unlimited amount of time for previous teaching experience. In addition, the state's plan allows teachers to purchase time for approved leaves of absence, up to two years per leave as long as teachers return within four years of the leave. These provisions are an advantage to those who move to South Carolina with previous teaching experience and those who need to take personal leaves, such as maternity or paternity leaves. South Carolina's defined contribution plan is fully portable and flexible for teachers.

In defined contribution plans, full vesting entitles teachers access to their funds and any available employer contributions. South Carolina's defined contribution plan vests immediately upon membership. When vested teachers end their service in South Carolina, they may withdraw their contributions, the employer contributions and their earnings.

In addition, the state is commended for offering two fully portable supplemental savings plans. The South Carolina Deferred Compensation Program (SCDCP) offers a 401(k) savings plan and a 457 savings plan. Teachers decide how much to contribute to these tax-deferred savings plans, and they choose how to invest their contributions. Contributions and their earnings are taxed at the time of withdrawal.


Recommendations for South Carolina

Increase the portability of the defined benefit plan.
If South Carolina maintains its defined benefit plan, it should allow all teachers that leave the system to withdraw their employer contributions. The state should also allow teachers to purchase their full amount of previous teaching experience at the start of employment, at least one year per approved leave of absence with a maximum of total purchased service, and decrease the vesting requirement to year three. A lack of portability is a disincentive to an increasingly mobile teaching force.  

Offer an employer contribution to the supplemental retirement plan.
While South Carolina at least offers teachers the option of a supplemental defined savings option, this option would be more meaningful if the state required employers also to contribute and if there were multiple investment options. 

Allow teachers more time to choose their retirement plan.
South Carolina should allow teachers more than 30 days to choose their retirement plan. This time is not sufficient for new teachers, often young and new to retirement plan information, to fully educate themselves on their choices at the same time as adjusting to their new employment responsibilities. If a longer choice period is not possible, teachers should be allowed to switch plans within the first year of employment after being automatically enrolled in the defined benefit plan.

State response to our analysis

South Carolina recognized the factual accuracy of this analysis.

Research rationale

NCTQ's analysis of the financial sustainability of state pension system is based on actuarial benchmarks promulgated by government and private accounting standards boards. For more information see U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2007, 30 and Government Accounting Standards Board Statement No. 25.

For an overview of the current state of teacher pensions, the various incentives they create, and suggested solutions, see Robert Costrell and Michael Podgursky. "Reforming K-12 Educator Pensions: A Labor Market Perspective." TIAA-CREF Institute (2011).

For evidence that retirement incentives do have a statistically significant effect on retirement decisions, see Joshua Furgeson, Robert P. Strauss, and William B. Vogt. "The Effects of Defined Benefit Pension Incentives and Working Conditions on Teacher Retirement Decisions", Education Finance and Policy (Summer, 2006).

For examples of how teacher pension systems inhibit teacher mobility, see Robert Costrell and Michael Podgursky, "Golden Handcuffs," Education Next, (Winter, 2010).

For additional information on state pension systems, see Susanna Loeb, and Luke Miller. "State Teacher Policies: What Are They, What Are Their Effects, and What Are Their Implications for School Finance?" Stanford University: Institute for Research on Education Policy and Practice (2006); and Janet Hansen, "Teacher Pensions: A Background Paper", published through the Committee for Economic Development (May, 2008).

For further evidence supporting NCTQ's teacher pension standards, see "Public Employees' Retirement System of the State of Nevada: Analysis and Comparison of Defined Benefit and Defined Contribution Retirement Plans." The Segal Group (2010).