PROVIDENCE — The state’s top legislative leaders on Friday signaled that they want to continue providing free tuition to eligible students at the Community College of Rhode Island on a permanent basis.
The future of the Rhode Island Promise program had been in doubt, because it is set to expire with the class that will enter CCRI in September, and its champion, Governor Gina M. Raimondo, is poised to become President Joe Biden’s secretary of commerce.
But House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and Senate president Dominick J. Ruggerio announced they will introduce legislation to remove the “sunset” provision, making the program permanent.
“The Promise program is an excellent example of how we can prioritize affordable college options for all Rhode Islanders,” said Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat. “The best investment we can make to help individuals achieve their goals is to give them the access to a college education, which is the pathway to a brighter future.”
“Rhode Island, the nation, and the world are increasingly knowledge economies,” said Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat. “Higher education is more necessary than ever before, and it has to be available and affordable for all Rhode Islanders.”
Raimondo, a Democrat, proposed the program in 2017, making it available to students graduating high school who begin CCRI the following fall. To keep the scholarship, they must be full-time students who qualify for in-state tuition, maintain at least a 2.5 grade point average, and remain on track to graduate on time.
As a “last-dollar” scholarship program, it funds only the remaining costs of tuition and mandatory student fees after Pell Grants and other sources of scholarship funding are factored in.
Originally, the program had a sunset provision that would have made it expire with the class that graduated high school in 2020 and entered CCRI that fall. The legislature included an expansion in the 2021 budget, extending to the program for students who are now high school seniors.
If the General Assembly passes the bills proposed by Shekarchi and Ruggerio, the program would be available to students “in perpetuity,” the leaders said. The program now costs $7 million per year.
The announcement comes as the General Assembly is facing a budget deficit projected at more than $500 million. According to an analysis by the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, the fiscal year 2022 budget deficit will stand at $513.7 million if spending continues to grow as projected and one-time federal funding is no longer available.
Senate spokesman Greg Pare said it’s too soon to answer questions about how the state can afford the program, and Biden has proposed additional funding for state and local governments. But he noted that the program is already factored into the budget because it covers students entering CCRI in the fall for two years.
“It has to be considered in the context of the overall budget,” Pare said, “and we will wait for official revenue estimates to come out in May.”
The announcement comes after CCRI announced the layoff of 45 non-faculty employees in September. At the time, CCRI President Meghan Hughes said enrollment stood at 13,500 – down 9 percent from the previous year amid the pandemic and the resulting economic crisis.
On Friday, Hughes issued a statement, saying she was “extremely grateful” to Shekarchi and Ruggerio for sponsoring the legislation.
“We know that the promise of free college tuition is a powerful message, one that resonates with high school students and their families, many of whom doubted college could be part of their future,” she said. “By making Rhode Island Promise permanent, current high school students, and even today’s middle schoolers, will see a path to a post-secondary degree.”
The program represents “a powerful, effective policy” for the state and its economy, Hughes said. “I believe now, more than ever, Rhode Island families need the security of knowing that, no matter their economic situation, their children have a path forward to a quality degree and, with it, a brighter future,” she said.
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.