Top Rhode Island legislators move to cement free college program into law

Dive Brief:

  • Rhode Island’s top two lawmakers want to enshrine the state’s free college program into law, a move that could lock the state into paying for it during an economically turbulent period.

  • The Rhode Island Promise, which guarantees up to two years of free tuition for some Community College of Rhode Island students, is set to end for the class entering in September. Proposed legislation would remove the expiration date.

  • The move is unusual, and one that could backfire if the state can’t adequately fund the program in the future, one higher education policy expert pointed out.

Dive Insight:

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, proposed the promise program in 2017. It allows students who qualify for in-state tuition, enroll full time and maintain a 2.5 GPA to get free tuition at the state’s only community college. 

It’s in line with other state promise programs, such as Tenneese’s, which offers two tuition-free years to attend a community or technical college. Both Rhode Island’s and Tennessee’s are last-dollar, too, meaning they take into account other aid — such as the federal Pell Grant and scholarships — that students have received before calculating their award.

Rhode Island’s House speaker and Senate president, both Democrats, introduced legislation late last week that nixes the program’s expiration date, citing improving graduation rates. The college’s two-year graduation rate reached 19% in 2019, up from a historic average of 6%, the Boston Globe reported, noting strong growth among minority populations.

Putting the Rhode Island Promise into state law would likely ensure its long-term survival. However, it’s not typical for states to cement such a financial obligation into law because doing so limits their flexibility during recessions, Robert Kelchen, a higher education professor at Seton Hall University, in New Jersey, wrote in an email.

Without a permanent endowment to fund the program, like Tennessee’s has, the state could end up having to reduce the number of scholarships it gives or tighten eligibility requirements, Kelchen wrote. 

The program costs the state $7 million a year. Rhode Island already endured a nearly $100 million funding shortfall the year the program was proposed, which led officials to scale back who qualified for it

“States that write programs into law can be creative in trying to cut costs if needed,” Kelchen wrote. 

Although the Biden administration made a federal free college program a pillar of its education platform, for now the idea is states’ domain.

Beth Akers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, expects some states will try to bolster free or reduced-tuition programs. But those facing budgetary shortfalls may view them as “a reasonable place to make cuts,” Akers wrote in an email, pointing out that state funding to higher ed has generally declined during economic downturns.

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