Gov. Gina Raimondo introduced the Rhode Island’s Promise proposal — which guarantees two years of free college for the state’s students if they choose to attend the Community College of Rhode Island, the University of Rhode Island or Rhode Island College — as a part of her FY2018 budget proposal in a press release Jan. 16.
“The data shows that in today’s economy, a college degree is the ticket to the middle class,” wrote Deputy Press Secretary Catherine Rolfe in an email to The Herald. “Roughly 70 percent of the jobs we’ll create in the coming years require at least an associate degree,” Rolfe wrote. But less than 45 percent of people in the state have received any higher education degree, according to data from the R.I. Department of Labor and Training.
“Low-income students spend nearly 75 percent of their family’s income to cover the cost of college,” according to a press release from the governor’s office. Almost 75 percent of R.I. students take on debt to earn a degree, and average debt adds to more than $35,000 after graduation — the second highest reported in the country.
The cost of the R.I.’s Promise proposal would be $30 million, which constitutes less than 0.5 percent of the state’s budget according to the R.I.’s Promise proposal website. All high school seniors who graduate from public, private or home school or get a GED, starting with the class of 2017, are eligible according to Raimondo’s proposal.
“(The governor’s) proposal to provide tuition and fees helps make college affordability more of a reality (and) would help ultimately reduce student debt levels and … increase completion rates,” said Andrew Bramson, president and CEO of The College Crusade of Rhode Island. “More state money to support higher education scholarships is really both needed and overdue,” he added.
“When you put out a proposal like free tuition, it’s clearly going to catch the attention of first-generation and low-income families and students,” Bramson said. He added that College Crusade expects more students to pursue four-year over two-year institutions, considering that tuition over four years will now be cut in half.
How Raimondo’s proposal contributes to completion “is more of an open question,” Bramson said. The proposal does not cover living expenses, which Bramson said “is what’s really determining whether or not low-income and first-generation students can finish college.”
The cost of tuition is not the only barrier preventing high school students from continuing on to college, said John Friedman, professor of economics and international and public affairs. “There’s evidence that small barriers to applying or applying for financial aid have really important effects in keeping kids out of college” he added.
In addition to the R.I.’s Promise proposal, the governor has implemented several measures to lower the costs of attending college, including making the PSAT and SAT free for every tenth and eleventh grade student, as well as introducing the Open Textbook Initiative, which lowers the cost of textbooks, Rolfe wrote.
Though there are several barriers to attending higher education, programs that “cut cost for attendance at these colleges do seem to have an effect on increasing college attendance rates,” Friedman said. “If you knock the price of attendance down by $1,000,” it increases enrollment in colleges by four to five percent, he added. Friedman also noted that though community college in Rhode Island is not very expensive after federal grants, tax credits and other loans, having a policy that guarantees free tuition greatly simplifies the process.
The governor expects that once fully enacted, enrollment at URI, RIC and CCRI could increase by as much as 20 percent, Rolfe wrote. More than 7,000 students per year would be affected, she added.
But the fact that the policy will only allow enrollment at state colleges may be a drawback. “Anytime you’re restricting peoples’ choices, that tends to not lead to better outcomes,” Friedman said.
Friedman referenced one side effect of a similar policy in Massachusetts, where students who performed well enough on high school graduation exams were offered free tuition to the University of Massachusetts. The impact was that students who would have attended other institutions, typically private schools, instead went to UMass, which “led to a lower graduation rate because … kids don’t graduate from UMass at as high a rate as they graduate from other schools,” Friedman said.
A tax credit for prospective R.I. college students that would make attending CCRI free but still leave open the option to go to other institutions would be a better option, he said.