Governor Got Free Community College, Wants More

An expanded free-college plan in Rhode Island offers an unusual way for a state to promote higher education, giving students the option of either two years of free community college or a scholarship covering their third and fourth years at a state university.

April 25, 2019
Rhode Island governor Gina M. Raimondo at the Rhode Island State House in Providence, R.I., on Oct. 12, 2017.
(Getty Images)

A bid by Rhode Island governor Gina M. Raimondo to expand her tiny state’s tuition-free community college plan offers a different take on free college.

Raimondo, a Democrat who just won re-election, has proposed two years of essentially tuition-free education that students can use either for community college or for the final two years of attending one of the state's two public four-year colleges, regardless of family income. She also wants to make adult students eligible for the community college benefit.

Raimondo first proposed what is now Rhode Island's Promise scholarship in 2017. As originally envisioned, it would have offered two years of free tuition to Rhode Island students at both the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) and the state’s two public four-year institutions, Rhode Island College (RIC) and the University of Rhode Island.

Lawmakers ultimately limited its benefits to just CCRI students. Now Raimondo is back. She wants to expand the plan to again offer two years of tuition at a public four-year institution for all students. At the moment, she’s aiming to offer the scholarship to third- and fourth-year students at Rhode Island College, but she has said she’d eventually like to make the scholarship available to students at the University of Rhode Island as well.

Raimondo, who was re-elected to a second term in November, has until 2023 to keep that promise.

Her proposal stands in contrast to New York's free-college proposal, announced in 2017 by Governor Andrew Cuomo, who vowed to make tuition free at the City University of New York and State University of New York systems -- for both community colleges and four-year colleges and universities. He said families with annual incomes up to $125,000 would qualify. Cuomo has estimated that nearly 940,000 families will be eligible once the plan is fully phased in this fall.

But the so-called Excelsior Scholarship has been closely scrutinized. The program has already provided tens of thousands of students with free tuition, but critics have said its requirements are burdensome -- students must complete 30 credits per year, then live and work in New York for the same number of years after graduation as they received scholarships. If they don't comply, the grants turn into loans that must be paid back.

New York's academic requirements have also been a source of criticism, since students who don’t complete all 30 credits in a year could have some of their scholarship clawed back. They’ll still be eligible for the first semester of free tuition in the year in which they failed to complete 30 credits, but after that, they could receive a bill from their college or university, asking them to pay for their second semester.

By contrast, both the current Rhode Island legislation and the proposed expansion ask only for a "commitment" by students to stay in Rhode Island after receiving the scholarship. They don't set forth a time requirement and have no penalties imposed if a student moves out of state. Students at CCRI must take at least 30 credits per year and maintain a 2.5 grade point average. Adult students must take 18 credits.

The estimated cost to expand Rhode Island's scholarship to adults: about $2 million. With an "M."

To expand it to Rhode Island College's third- and fourth-year students: about $3.5 million next year, and $5 million once both classes are enrolled.

The estimated cost is so low because it’s designed as a “last-dollar” scholarship, to take effect after other forms of financial aid are exhausted. Research on the program has shown that most of the students who qualify are already eligible for federal Pell Grants, which cover virtually the full cost of both CCRI and RIC. Since the award is not means tested, the state would, ironically, pay out more per student for higher-income candidates, who don’t qualify for Pell Grants.

Art Nevins, Raimondo’s education policy adviser, acknowledged that a portion of the funding would benefit these students. But in the big picture, he said, the program “has made a huge difference, even though the reality is we’re just applying the federal funding from the Pell [Grant]” for many students to attend college when they ordinarily wouldn’t. “It shows you that making that promise and commitment that it is free, that it is attainable and affordable for them, does wonders,” he said.

Nevins said research shows that more jobs will require at least some college. “That’s where the needs of the work force are headed,” he said. While Raimondo doesn’t believe that everyone must attend college, the legislation supports her belief that “every Rhode Islander deserves a shot at getting a college degree,” he said.

He said Raimondo felt that it was “important to make sure that everybody in Rhode Island was a part of the program,” rather than excluding upper-income families. Nevins noted that many middle-class families are at pains to cover their children's college expenses. “We know these families are struggling with the cost of higher education, and I think a lot of families in the middle class and lower middle class -- and even folks that are struggling with poverty, for whatever reason -- may not qualify for the Pell.”

As it stands, even the expanded scholarship would have its limits. Students who begin as freshmen at RIC wouldn’t be eligible for the scholarship until junior year -- and would have to maintain a 2.5 GPA while attending full-time. Raimondo also wants to offer tuition aid to CCRI students over age 25 -- as it is, the program only benefits those who enrolled directly out of high school and who attend full-time. Yet state statistics show that 38 percent of college students statewide are already older than 25, and that 47 percent support themselves financially.

The group representing the state’s private colleges -- all eight of them -- has lined up in opposition to the proposal and doesn’t want to see it expanded. They see it as one of three trends -- along with President Trump's immigration policies and unfavorable regional demographics -- spelling their possible demise.

Daniel P. Egan, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Rhode Island, said the group didn’t take a formal position on the original legislation. But two years later, he said, conditions have worsened. Offering students what amounts to free public tuition represents “the third leg of a shaky stool” for the state's private institutions, particularly for tuition-driven ones, facing newly restrictive immigration regulations and the effects of fewer high school graduates -- especially in the Northeast. “It’s the perfect storm,” he said.

Of the eight institutions, some depend more than others on Rhode Islanders as students. At New England Institute of Technology, for instance, about half of students hail from Rhode Island. At Johnson & Wales, just one in four is a Rhode Islander. But those 1,237 new CCRI students “had to come from somewhere,” Egan said. He noted that in the first year of the scholarship, enrollment fell at RIC, the public four-year college, as it has for several years running.

Frank Sánchez, RIC’s president, confirmed that perhaps as many as 200 students who would likely have attended RIC instead attended CCRI on the Promise scholarship.

“We anticipated some impact on our enrollments,” he said, noting that similar dynamics played out among a few public four-year colleges in Tennessee when it implemented a statewide community college scholarship in 2015. At the University of Tennessee at Martin, for instance, undergraduate enrollment last spring fell 2.4 percent compared to the previous year.

RIC’s student body, about half of whom are Pell eligible, would likely see an expanded Promise scholarship as a “significant incentive” to staying long enough to graduate. The college, which charges about $9,500 annually in tuition, would essentially be free for years three and four if lawmakers fund Raimondo’s expansion. “That will help a lot of our students,” Sánchez said, noting RIC’s low four-year graduation rate. “We have some work to do there,” he admitted. According to RIC, its four-year graduation rate is about 20 percent. Its six-year graduation rate is 50 percent.

Meghan Hughes, CCRI’s president, said she’s “very pleased” with the scholarship’s results so far. In the program’s second year last fall, overall enrollment of first-time, full-time Rhode Island students who enrolled directly out of high school grew by 1,237, or by 113 percent over 2016, from about 1,100 to 2,337. About 61 percent of those new students came from low-income families, and 47 percent were students of color, according to statistics provided by the college. In all, CCRI enrolls more than 22,000 students on four campuses, making it the largest community college in New England. It is also the only community college in Rhode Island.

Sara Enright, vice president for student affairs and chief outcomes officer at CCRI, said the largest groups of students now applying for the Promise scholarship are those whose families bring in under $25,000 annually. The second-largest group is those who earn less than $50,000. “All of those are full Pell eligible,” she said.

Enright added, “Much of the power of having a Promise program is that you cut through the noise of financial aid in all of its complexity. You draw students in with the simplicity of messaging: ‘College is now affordable. There is a way for you to attend CCRI. You do not have to worry about whether you can afford it or not.’ That is a very different message than what high school students have heard historically.”

While no public policy solution is perfect, Enright said, “I would say this one is a pretty strong lever toward increasing access for precisely the individuals who lacked access to higher education historically.”

Sánchez, RIC’s president, said many middle-class families “get squeezed” between ineligibility for Pell Grants and their inability to afford rising college costs. In many cases, he said, students at RIC drop out after two years to earn enough to return a year or two later. Offering a third- and fourth-year scholarship, he said, would enable these students “to get out into the work force with far less debt.”

An expanded scholarship, he said, “would be a very good boost for us.”

Thomas Brock, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, said Raimondo's new proposal is unique for several reasons: for one, he said, it would benefit adult students. “Most free-college programs around the country are limited to traditional students,” he said, and bypass older adults. Not so in the Rhode Island proposal. “That’s novel and that’s important.”

He said Raimondo's bid to offer the scholarship in years three and four of a four-year college career “really matters,” because research suggests that students who attend four-year colleges have better odds of completion as well as better earnings and employment prospects.

Brock said he hopes the institutions receiving the scholarship students support them with counseling and other infrastructure improvements. “It’s not going to do anyone any good to get free college if they don’t get the classes they need,” he said.

He also said Raimondo should think seriously about how the state will evaluate the program's effectiveness. “There really should be an evaluation baked into this, to see whether those results are achieved.”

Nevins, the governor’s education adviser, said that while the program has meant “significant” increases in enrollment at CCRI so far, there’s no indication that these new students are siphoned off from private Rhode Island colleges. “The reality of it is that the price point for our private institutions is so different from our public institutions already,” he said. “The reality is that the vast, vast majority of their students come from out of state.”

Egan said the private colleges’ opposition comes less from a student-by-student competitive viewpoint than from a larger funding perspective. Raimondo plans to seek funding for the scholarship, he said, in part by cutting $2 million in aid elsewhere in the state education budget over four years -- funding that directly benefits students at the private colleges.

“We truly believe it’s really shortsighted to be picking winners and losers,” he said.

Brock said concerns that the scholarship will unfairly benefit students from upper-income families are "overblown," mostly because these students self-select into other colleges.

Raimondo has requested $7.9 million to expand the scholarship -- a figurative drop in the bucket in a $10 billion state budget, amounting to less than one-tenth of 1 percent.

“As I’ve talked to legislators, my sense is that there’s not a lot of debate on the policy,” said Sánchez. “It really is a question of affordability.”

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello this week didn't have much to say when queried by email about Raimondo's plan, replying with a single sentence: “We have very limited resources and adding any new programs is going to be very difficult to do this year.”

Lawmakers are expected to offer a projection of state revenue by early May, with a budget completed a month later.

So far, Nevins said, the issue is a winner for Raimondo, especially in a state so small that virtually everyone knows a young person who has benefited from the scholarship. “Every time the governor goes to an event, someone comes up to her” with a story, he said. “People have seen the impact already.”

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