In 2014, our nation’s smallest state, Rhode Island, had one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. It was in that year, Rhode Island voters elected General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, the state’s first female Governor in a three-way race.
Since becoming Governor in January 2015, creating high paying jobs in the Ocean State has been a priority of Raimondo’s. This required her and her staff to focus on the state’s skill gap since 70 percent of Rhode Island jobs required some postsecondary education, but more than half of adult residents only have a high school diploma.
The Governor directed her staff to research how other states addressed job creation and college obtainment goals, with a focused interest on the Tennessee Promise. The research included a thorough review of the Campaign for Free College Tuition’s Briefing Book for State Leaders on how to make public colleges tuition free. The team decided to create a Promise Program that was officially announced by Governor Raimondo on Martin Luther King Day 2017 at an annual breakfast in Cranston that attracts 1,000 or more Rhode Islanders honoring his legacy.
As initially proposed, the program would benefit students attending all three of the state’s public colleges – the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI), Rhode Island College (RIC) and the University of Rhode Island (URI). Students entering CCRI immediately after high school would be eligible for a two-year last dollar scholarship that could be applied to any associate’s degree program. The most innovative part of the proposal was a provision that students at the state’s four-year institutions – RIC and URI – would be eligible for similar tuition assistance in their junior and senior year. The Providence Journal reported that “the program would encourage URI and RIC undergraduates to persevere in their studies until they earned their degrees.” The on-time graduation rate graduation rate at URI is only 49 percent – and it is just 14 percent at RIC.
The very next day, Governor Raimondo formally presented the Rhode Island Promise to the legislature in her State of the State Address. Her words rang strong and true. “A century ago, we decided as a nation that every American had a right to free education up to 12th grade. We did that because those were the skills you needed to get a good job. But our economy has changed. And the playing field has changed. And so our promise needs to change, too. Our promise needs to change if the people of Rhode Island are going to have a real shot in the economy of the future.”
A pivotal moment in the legislature came on March 15, 2017 when Governor Raimondo testified before the House Finance Committee. According to the Providence Journal, she made her case “forcefully – and was greeted with cheers and applause from dozens of high school students and others who filled the State House hearing room and overflowed into the corridors.”
“This is a game-changer for Rhode Island,” the governor told committee members. “It has the power to change lives.”
After the Governor testified, dozens of students spoke in support of Rhode Island Promise – including several members of the Providence Student Union, a non-profit organization for high school students focused on building student power. Their testimony was extremely compelling with many of them coming to the Capitol and/or testifying for the first time. In a subsequent conversation with Campaign for Free College Tuition President Morley Winograd, a senior legislator was moved to say that “we have to do something for these kids.”
The Rhode Island Promise’s $30 million price tag when fully implemented caused some consternation in the legislature. Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello (D) “set the tone among House Democrats by making their top priority the elimination of car taxes, which are widely unpopular,” reported Matt O’Brien of the Associated Press. “That put him at odds with Raimondo who advocated for a more modest one-time cut and questioned whether the state could do more.”
On Twitter, Speaker Mattiello called the Governor’s Promise proposal “unsustainable and fiscally irresponsible.”
Rep. John Edwards (D), the House Majority Whip, said the Governor “wants to give something away that would only benefit a very small portion of our population” and told the Associated Press that he was more concerned about hospital funding.
Other legislators believed that the Rhode Island Promise should include a post-residency requirement. RI Future, a progressive political blog, noted that at an April Aquidneck Island Planning Commission forum, five of the eight legislators in attendance “suggested” that such a requirement would make the Governor’s proposal stronger.
After announcing the Rhode Island Promise in January, Governor Raimondo visited several high schools to build support. She invited state legislators and the media to accompany her on these visits.
Additionally, she and her staff engaged both the business community and organized labor to garner support. In February, she made her free college proposal the centerpiece of her third economic summit – “Make it in Rhode Island” – attended by approximately 100 business leaders at the downtown campus of the University of Rhode Island (URI). The plan was endorsed by the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, the Southern Rhode Island Chamber of Congress, and Providence Business News.
In April, four prominent members of the state’s tech community came together to support the Promise in a joint Providence Journal op-ed. Nick Inglis of The Information Coalition, Annie De Groot of EpiVax, Inc., Rajiv Kumar of Virgin Pulse, and Max Winograd of NuLabel Technologies, Inc. said, “Our companies and organizations need to be near talent, and we want to hire Rhode Islanders. But in the past, we’ve run into challenges finding enough local candidates to fill important positions, requiring us to augment local staff with remote employees in other states.
There’s a sense that our young people learn here but then leave the state to seek good-paying jobs. There’s a brain drain, leading to a sense of despair and dampening our collective optimism about the future of our state. Rhode Island Promise would change that. We will be stronger as a state if our next generation of scientists, educators, and entrepreneurs is homegrown and debt-free.”
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam (R) participated on an April conference call with Governor Raimondo and AT&T Tennessee President Joelle Phillips to help energize the business community in support of Rhode Island Promise. Governor Haslam told Rhode Island business leaders the Tennessee Promise stemmed from the fact that "we had too big of a culture here where people thought that school beyond high school wasn’t for them. Their parents and grandparents hadn’t gone to school beyond high school; they didn’t need to.”
He went on to state that he and his team needed “to shock the system” in order to address the rising share of jobs requiring post-high school education.
“You have two governors that on the surface appear very different – one Republican, one Democrat, one male, one female, one in the Southeast, one in the Northeast," Haslam said, according to the Nashville Tennessean. "But I think we understand that the changing world means that folks in our position have to be prepared to lead in different ways."
Organized labor also supported the Rhode Island Promise. Rhode Island AFL-CIO President George Nee said in his endorsement statement that “the labor movement from its beginning has supported free public education for young people in the elementary and secondary schools. Due to the changing nature of employment in our economy, the time has come to extend this concept to our students engaged in post- secondary education.”
Additionally, former Obama Administration officials entered the fray in support of Governor Raimondo’s proposal. Governor Raimondo’s office distributed an op-ed by former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. It said, “Governor Raimondo’s Rhode Island Promise Scholarship proposal offer a pathway to opportunity. As importantly, it provides businesses and other employers with better access to talented workers. And perhaps, it will propel one of those students from South Providence to start the next Facebook, the next Airbnb or a cancer-curing research organization.”
Similarly, the Campaign for Free College Tuition (CFCT) helped place an op-ed by former U.S. Undersecretary of Education Ted Mitchell and James Kvaal, a former senior domestic policy advisor to President Obama, in the Providence Journal. Mitchell and Kvaal said, “it is past time to recognize that some education after high school has to be the norm, just as high school became the expectation over the past century. We all have a stake in laying the foundation for shared, sustainable growth, and one important step is to eliminate tuition for public colleges.”
High School students were among the most ardent supporters of the Rhode Island Promise. The Providence Student Union (PSU) not only activated students for the initial budget hearing at the state capitol, but was deeply involved throughout the legislative process.
PSU was one the organizers of a rally at the State Capitol in May. There Jayleen Salcedo, a high school senior and PSU member, joined fellow speakers and approximately 75 students and community members in support of increasing college access, equality and affordability. RIFuture.org reported that rally organizers highlighted the following three statistics to show the need for the Promise and other policies addressing college affordability:
PSU students also ran a phone bank that placed thousands of calls to voters in targeted legislative districts. There efforts were primarily focused on other communities in the state as Providence legislators were early and ardent supporters of Rhode Island Promise. Additionally, PSU organized a series of discussions on the rising cost of college. In June 2017, events were held in Pawtucket, Providence and Warwick.
As Governor Raimondo and legislators worked towards crafting a budget for the Fiscal Year beginning on July 1, 2017, state officials announced on May 10th a $99.6 million shortfall due, primarily, to lower than expected corporate tax collections. As the Providence Journal succinctly stated, “the bottom line: less money makes it that much harder for everyone at the Rhode Island State House to get everything they want in the new state budget.”
In a subsequent interview with the Providence Journal, Governor Raimondo signaled a willingness to compromise. She stated that there are different ways to reduce the cost of the Rhode Island Promise, “which I am open to. I want to do something – this isn’t all or nothing. It’s much better to do something than nothing. Start the project, set us down the path. In future years if there’s more money, expand it.”
During this period in the budget process, Governor Raimondo’s office cited the role of the Providence Student Union and other student advocates to make sure the Rhode Island Promise was included in the final budget agreement in some form or fashion. Staff members told CFCT that student messages were powerful and “carried us over the finish line.”
At the end of June on what was supposed to be the last day of the 2017 legislation session, Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello sent his members home to protest an amendment the Senate wanted to add to the budget regarding the speaker’s car tax phaseout. “The events left Rhode Island with no state budget and no clear path to enact one,” reported WPRI.
After weeks of back and forth, a budget deal was announced at the end of July and Governor Raimondo signed the state budget into law on August 3, 2017. The budget that she signed enacted the Rhode Island Promise for students attending the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI). During the budget process, the provision for tuition-free college for RIC and URI juniors and seniors was dropped in order to scale back cost to approximately $2.75 million in FY18 (for the first cohort of students), and then about $6 million in following years for two classes.
As enacted, Rhode Island Promise provides a last dollar scholarship for up to two academic years and can be applied to any associate degree program at CCRI. It may not be used for certificate or non-credit programs. Recipients of the Promise must attend CCRI full time directly out of high school, and commit to live, work, or continue their education in Rhode Island after graduation. However, the program does not contain a penalty for leaving the state. Additionally, Promise scholars are required to maintain a 2.5 GPA in college.
The enactment of the budget in early August left state and CCRI officials only about four weeks to enroll Rhode Island Promise students in 2017. They made a full court press, including two August enrollment days at CCRI, where students could interact with the admissions, financial aid, and advising staff. Governor Raimondo attended the first enrollment day at CCRI’s Knight Campus to help publicize Promise enrollment.
Other state agencies also helped reach prospective students. Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) buses carried Rhode Island Promise advertisments at no cost to CCRI. Additionally, the state’s Department of Environmental Management advertised the Promise at one of the state’s most popular summer gathering spots for prospective college students – the beach.
The result was the largest incoming cohort of new full-time students in CCRI history. According to CCRI President Megan Hughes, more than 1,400 such students enrolled in the Fall 2017 semester, compared to 950 last year. “To put this work in a national perspective, when a similar model was launched in Tennessee, that system had more than a year to prepare for the launch, along with extra marketing money to make it happen. Tennessee experienced a 25 percent increase in the number of first-time, full-time freshman,” said Hughes. “Our college had only one month, and no extra marketing money, and we experienced a nearly 50 percent increase.”
From start to finish, RI Governor Raimondo’s push to make the state’s colleges tuition free is a textbook example of how strong leadership in any state can overcome all obstacles to achieving this goal.
Our goal is to make higher education a possibility for every American, without regard to their financial circumstances.
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