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What Rhode Island can teach the country about free community college

Vice President Harris spoke to the press prior to departing on Air Force Two from General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee, Wis., on Tuesday as she traveled to promote the administration's economic plans.SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

If Vice President Harris wants to have some fun while she’s in Rhode Island Wednesday, she should consider a trip to Gregg’s for cake (the traveling press loves this) or stop by Andino’s on Federal Hill for calamari (we are the calamari comeback state, after all).

But if Harris wants to do something truly productive during her visit, where she’s expected to promote the multitrillion-dollar American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan, she might want to consider two other destinations: The Community College of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College.

As Harris and President Biden’s administration begin their push to spend $109 billion to offer free community college across the country, they should take a serious look at both the benefits and the unintended consequences of these kinds of programs.


And Rhode Island has had a front-row seat for both since it started offering the Rhode Island Promise scholarship in 2017.

Rhode Island Promise covers two years of tuition at the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) for all new high school graduates from Rhode Island, and the results have been nothing short of remarkable. The college has reported a 155 percent increase in students of color and the two-year graduation rate has risen to 18 percent, which doesn’t sound very high until you consider that the average graduation rate was previously around 4 percent.

Rhode Island College (RIC) is one of the few four-year colleges in the Northeast where a bachelor’s degree still costs less than a Mercedes, but it has fallen on hard times. Undergraduate enrollment has dipped 19 percent since 2015, and fell to less than 6,000 students last spring as the COVID-19 pandemic started. Pay cuts and layoffs followed.

“No question there’s been an impact,” RIC President Frank Sanchez told me this week.


Nobody likes the guy who says, “I told you so,” but that’s what makes Sanchez an important voice.

He strongly supports Rhode Island Promise and he’s optimistic about the plan Biden will put forward, but both he and outgoing University of Rhode Island President David Dooley have been urging lawmakers to consider adding their institutions to the Promise program for years.

Those requests have fallen on deaf ears.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When former governor and current US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo initially unveiled the Promise plan, she wanted high school graduates to have the choice of two free years at CCRI or to pay no tuition during their final two years at RIC or URI.

Lawmakers balked, and then chipped away at the plan until it became a temporary program at CCRI only. The good news is that the state is poised to make the Promise program permanent this year. The bad news is there has been little interest in expanding it to RIC and URI.

There are now 17 states that offer some version of free community college, so it’s no surprise that Biden wants to implement a nationwide program. As part of what he calls the American Families Plan, Biden also wants to implement universal pre-kindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds.

We haven’t seen the finer details of Biden’s proposal, but we also know he wants to increase the federal Pell Grant (for undergraduate students with “exceptional financial need”) by $1,400 to $7,895 a year, and offer two years of tuition at historically Black colleges and universities, tribal colleges and universities, and minority-serving institutions to families earning less than $125,000 a year.


They’re all good ideas, but public colleges across the country could face the same drop in enrollment that RIC has experienced. And good luck to all those small, expensive liberal arts colleges that are already struggling.

“When you’re targeting one part of the public higher education, there are consequences” for the others, Sanchez said.

There’s an obvious way to poke a hole in the unintended consequences argument: If the federal government is going to cover the cost of community college, state governments should ramp up funding for their four-year public colleges.

But these common-sense ideas often end up being ignored or avoided until it’s too late.

Sanchez thinks Congress should require states to maintain their existing levels of funding for colleges even if Biden’s plan is approved. He also suggested that doubling the Pell Grant to nearly $13,000 would also do the trick. That would more than cover in-state tuition at RIC.

So welcome to Rhode Island, Madam Vice President.

If you want to craft the best free-college program possible, learn from us.

Dan McGowan can be reached at Follow him @danmcgowan.