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PROVIDENCE — In 2017, Rhode Island became just the fourth state to make community college free, footing the bill for all students regardless of income. It was a bold move that Governor Gina Raimondo sold with the potential to dramatically boost enrollment numbers and graduation rates at the Community College of Rhode Island.
Now, as the Rhode Island Promise program nears the end of its second year, Raimondo says her predictions have proved true: The number of first-time, full-time students at CCRI has doubled to 2,300 and college officials project the school’s two-year graduation rate will jump from 6 percent to 18 percent when students wrap up courses this summer.
Raimondo wants to expand on the program’s success by offering two years of free tuition to juniors and seniors at Rhode Island College, a four-year state school that has historically attracted commuter students.
But legislative leaders, while supportive of the existing program, say a projected $200 million budget deficit will make it difficult to approve the additional spending needed to add Rhode Island College to the lineup this year.
“Early data is pointing to a significant budget shortfall, and difficult choices may need to be made in the weeks ahead,” said Greg Pare, a spokesman for Senate President Dominick Ruggerio. “The Senate president has indicated that the first place he will look when working to address a funding gap is to new programs and the expansion of existing programs.”
Raimondo has called the initiative’s $13 million price tag a “drop in the bucket” in a $9.9 billion budget, arguing the companies she has recruited to Rhode Island are seeking a skilled workforce.
In a rare appearance before the House Finance Committee last month, she told lawmakers the scholarship program is essential to sustaining the state’s economic recovery.
“Almost every single decent job being created is for somebody who has a degree past high school,” Raimondo said. “I don’t think you should have to be rich to get that ticket.”
But even as General Assembly leaders have balked, Raimondo’s advocacy has grabbed the attention of at least one high-ranking lawmaker. State Senator William Conley, an East Providence Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, joined the governor for a roundtable discussion with CCRI students last week.
He was noncommittal about whether he’ll support the expansion, but he said he was impressed with young people he spoke to at the forum.
“The best evidence of how this program is doing is hearing personal stories,” Conley said.
There are more than 400 college promise programs in the United States, although many have limited slots or don’t cover the full cost of tuition at public colleges, according to a database maintained by the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. The cities of Boston, Hartford, and New Haven all offer versions of free college programs, and the University of Maine System covers tuition and fees for four years at several of its campuses.
Rhode Island Promise is modeled after the state of Tennessee, which launched its free college program in 2015.
All students who graduate from local high schools and immediately enroll at CCRI are eligible to receive two years of free tuition and fees, but they must maintain full-time enrollment and a 2.5 grade point average to keep their scholarships. There are no income restrictions for enrollees.
The program is considered a last-dollar scholarship, which means students are required to exhaust all nonloan forms of financial aid before the state covers the rest of the cost.
Just under half of the 1,584 students who entered CCRI straight from high school in 2017 received the full state scholarship of $2,100 per semester. The rest qualified for federal Pell Grants.
Rhode Island is projected to spend $5.6 million on the program this year, and Raimondo set aside a total of $13.2 million in her 2020 budget proposal to account for the program’s expansion.
In addition to covering the last two years at Rhode Island College, the plan would allow students over age 25 to attend CCRI for free.
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has said he wants to see more results before committing to an expansion. Like Ruggerio, he also raised concerns through a spokesman about additional spending in the budget.
“With a large budget deficit looming, and even more ominous out-year forecasts, it will be very difficult to fund new proposals,” House spokesman Larry Berman said.
Lawmakers aren’t planning a deep review of the program’s effectiveness until next year, but CCRI officials acknowledge not every student has a success story.
About 40 percent of the students in the first class of Rhode Island Promise were no longer enrolled at CCRI by the spring semester this year, and less than one in five is expected to earn an associate’s degree in the allotted two years. That’s generally in line with graduation rates at community colleges around the country. Just 39 percent of students complete such programs within six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Despite the Legislature’s concerns about spending, Raimondo has said expanding the program to Rhode Island College and adult learners remains a top priority for her administration. During the roundtable discussion at CCRI, six students told her the scholarship has changed their lives.
Andres Escobar, a first-generation college student whose family came to the United States from El Salvador, told the group he’ll graduate from CCRI after just one year because he earned 30 college credits while enrolled at Providence’s Classical High School. He has dreams of attending Brown University or Boston College, but said he didn’t have the money to consider those schools.
“I don’t want to be a financial burden on the rest of my family,” Escobar said.
Others aren’t sold the state has done its due diligence with Rhode Island Promise. Leonard Lardaro, an economics professor at the University of Rhode Island, said the program has merit, but it “wasn’t particularly well thought out.” Rhode Island College, for example, may have been inadvertently hurt because students who usually would have enrolled there instead opted to attend CCRI for free.
“In summary, this could have potentially been very good, but planning for its implementation and funding levels have been too little up to this point,” Lardaro said.