Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo has announced a bold plan to provide two-years of college tuition-free for all Rhode Islanders. Her Rhode Island’s Promise proposal, when enacted, will provide either two-years of tuition-free community college for full-time students, or last dollar scholarships to make tuition free for junior and senior students at the state’s public four-year colleges. She writes in the following blog post, written at the request of the Campaign for Free College Tuition, “this policy will encourage both access and completion, ensuring that Rhode Islanders are earning their degrees without falling behind.”
We applaud Governor Raimondo and share her hope “that leaders across the country will follow Rhode Island’s example in designing free tuition policies that meet their local needs and reach all students.”
When I was growing up in Rhode Island, fewer than 25 percent of jobs in our state required a degree beyond high school. By 2020, that number will have nearly tripled; already, some 70 percent of jobs in the Ocean State require a postsecondary degree or certificate. Our challenge, then, is to move our state’s educational attainment up and make sure that every Rhode Island student who is willing to work hard can make it in today’s economy.
As Governor, I am laser-focused on making sure Rhode Islanders are prepared to fill those 21st century jobs.
A college degree is now the surest ticket to the middle class. Associate’s degree recipients earn $360,000 more over the course of their lifetimes compared to high school graduates, and bachelor’s degree recipients earn $1 million more.
We have an immediate and pressing need to ensure that all Rhode Islanders have the option to continue their education beyond high school—but the reality right now is that cost of attendance discourages many from going or completing their courses when they get there. Too many Rhode Islanders simply can’t afford it.
I know the struggle many students and families face when it comes to paying for college. When I got into college, my parents wanted to be supportive—but our blue-collar finances just couldn’t cover three kids. I worked my way through higher education, taking out loans along the way. By the time I was ready to enter the working world as an adult, I had nearly $100,000 of student debt—and, when my husband and I got married, that doubled. For years, we lived in tiny apartments, ate instant ramen for dinner, and worked hard to pay off our loans.
I know how privileged and lucky I am that my family managed to make it work, and I know my husband and I couldn’t have built our life together without our education.
Too many Rhode Islanders don’t have that option. The cost of college creates a barrier that keeps too many qualified students from applying for, enrolling in, or completing college. Year after year, about 90 percent of high school seniors in Rhode Island say they want to go to college—but less than two-thirds actually do.
We need to tell every one of those students that there can be a seat with their name on it at our public colleges. More than ever, we need to ensure that the hardest part of college isn’t paying for it.
That’s why, in my budget currently before the Rhode Island General Assembly, I included a proposal to offer two years of free college for every Rhode Islander, Rhode Island’s Promise. Students who qualify for in-state tuition and enroll full-time right after high school or after earning a GED will be guaranteed two years of college for free at one of our three public higher education institutions: the Community College of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College, and the University of Rhode Island.
I also know that time, not just tuition, is a major barrier to college completion. The longer it takes students to graduate, the more life gets in the way, and the less likely it becomes that students will complete their degrees. Like many of our peers around the country, Rhode Island’s students struggle to graduate college on time.
That’s why, under my proposal, students at four-year colleges will receive the scholarship in their junior and senior years, as long as they remain on track to graduating on time. Students at the Community College will receive both years of tuition free but will be required to enroll full-time to receive the scholarship, and they must be on-path to complete their degrees in two years. This policy will encourage both access and completion, ensuring that Rhode Islanders are earning their degrees without falling behind.
The price tag is reasonable. Once fully implemented, the total cost ($30 million) is less than one half of one percent of the state budget. Some have balked at the idea of paying for everyone in the state and want to advocate for a means-test. But the reality is that means-testing would leave out too many middle class families. It also diminishes the promise: We want to make it clear to every family in Rhode Island that our state’s commitment to public education doesn’t end at grade 12. Our public colleges are engines of upward mobility, and this program will open the doors to even more Rhode Islanders looking to access them.
Rhode Island’s Promise is a commitment to Rhode Island students who are asking for nothing more than a shot to compete in today’s new economy. College has increasingly become a requirement to secure employment, and states like ours must step up and support bold initiatives to help students get to and through college. I am hopeful this proposal will pass and that leaders across the country will follow Rhode Island’s example in designing free tuition policies that meet their local needs and reach all students.
Our goal is to make higher education a possibility for every American, without regard to their financial circumstances.
We have a lot to do and not much time to do it, so your support is critical for our campaign to succeed. It’s with your investment that we can fundamentally reform how higher education is financed in this country, opening the doors to a more equitable society.
If you agree with our goal, our plan, and the urgency of the problem, we ask that you give what you can to help us write the next chapter in our nation’s history of continuously expanding access to universal, free education.