Free college tuition for Rhode Islanders is here. With Senate passage of the $9.6 billion state budget last week and its signature by Gov. Gina Raimondo, the governor’s Rhode Island Promise is now law.
Raimondo had hoped to give students at the state’s three institutions of higher learning two tuition-free years of education. For URI and RIC students, the scholarship would have come during the junior and senior years. At the Community College of Rhode Island, which offers a two-year associate degree program, graduating high school seniors would be eligible for the scholarship after exhausting other forms of aid. The program had eligibility and average grade point average requirements.
Raimondo pushed hard for her plan, even addressing high school students, which seemed to be creating false expectations, as legislators had not approved it. Under fire over the financial viability of the plan when revenue forecasters projected a downturn in tax revenues and questioning by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, Rhode Island’s Promise was scaled back to simply free CCRI tuition. The budget allotment for the first year is $2.75 million. Students must maintain a 2.5 grade point average to remain in the program and are asked to stay in the state for a minimum of two years upon graduation, though students won’t be penalized for leaving Rhode Island.
This Thursday the governor will formally launch the Promise at the Knight Campus of CCRI, followed by registration sessions at the college. It will put Rhode Island on the map as one of the few states to offer free college tuition, an action the governor believes is essential to ensure the workforce of tomorrow and the ability for Rhode Islanders to fill meaningful jobs.
In the context of the state budget, or for that matter the $22 million it is going to cost the state to implement the first year of a 6-year phase out of municipal car taxes, the $3 million for free CCRI tuition for 2017 high school graduates is small potatoes. But to judge the program only on its cost would be a mistake.
Rhode Island Promise sends a clear message that the state recognizes the importance of higher education and is ready to assist those seeking it, regardless of financial capability.
The Rhode Island Promise will kick in once other aid such as Pell grants have been used by those qualifying for financial aid. The free tuition also applies to those not qualifying for other forms of aid.
However, this is not a needs or a merit-based program. If you are a 2017 high school graduate or GED recipient under the age of 19, and a Rhode Islander, you qualify.
This is a bold initiative. We look forward to learning how many follow up on this offer and, most of all, of the rewards it could bring to their lives and the state.