By Susan Gale

The state may be small, but Rhode Island is big when it comes to education.

In the past two years, Governor Gina Raimondo and the state legislature have taken many forward and innovative steps to prepare RI students for the future, including:

  • Allocating money to ensure statewide universal access to full-day kindergarten.
  • Increasing the number of state pre-K programs for low-income communities.
  • Making the PSAT and SAT free for every 10th and 11th grader in public schools.
  • Expanding dual-enrollment programs where high school students earn college credits for free. Last year, more than 4,000 students took advantage of this program.
  • Launched anOpen Textbook Initiative to transition to openly licensed textbooks and save students an estimated $5 million. RIC has already saved students $100,000 by replacing the traditional textbook for a biology course.
  • Launched a public-private initiative called Computer Science for Rhode Island (CS4RI) which seeks to get CS classes into every public school by December 2017.

Now the latest proposal is being put forth by Raimondo – to offer every eligible RI student two free years of college through the Rhode Island’s Promise program.

What the future holds

By 2020, it is estimated that 70% of jobs created in RI will require an associate’s degree or higher. However, fewer than 50% of URI students, 15% of RIC students, and only 5% of CCRI students earn their degrees on time. Many are impeded by having to work numerous hours and not having enough money to pay for college.

Students graduating from Rhode Island colleges with debt, on average, have more than $35,000 in loans to repay – the second highest debt of any state, according to the Governor’s office.

Raimondo has been doing a mini-tour of state high schools touting her free college proposal. “I can’t think of a better thing to invest in than you,” Raimondo told the packed auditorium at the William E. Tolman High School in Providence.

If approved, Rhode Island will be one of only a few states to provide free tuition to students attending its public colleges, regardless of family income. Students at Tolman were enthusiastic about the idea.

“Two years – that’s a lot of money. We did our research. We know how much college costs,” said senior Nicole Tifa, who feels the proposal would lessen her stress about college.

“I thought it was a lie at first,” said Yaishalee Carpintero. “They don’t just offer free things.”

Another student, Jillian Booth, said she had decided to stay in-state to go to college because of the proposal.

Rhode Island’s Promise

Rhode Island’s Promise program is already active and because of it, more than half of the students at CCRI, including adult and part-time students, are attending college for free, according to the Governor’s office.

The extended program would build over the next five years, from $10 million to $30 million annually when fully implemented in fiscal year 2021. That figure will be less than 1% of the state general revenue budget, according to Raimondo’s office, but is expected to serve more than 7,000 students per year.

Beginning with the class of 2017, all high school seniors who graduate from a public or private RI high school, complete a home school program, or obtain a GED before turning 19, and who enroll the semester after graduation, are eligible.

The scholarship will cover two years of tuition and mandatory fees at CCRI, RIC, and URI. At CCRI the scholarship will pay for the entire degree for all students who enroll full-time and complete on time, and at RIC and URI the scholarship will pay for the second half of a student’s education, typically a student’s junior and senior years.

Students must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and qualify for in-state tuition (which generally requires three years of residence) to be eligible. For students hoping to take advantage of the scholarship at CCRI this year, the deadline for completing the FAFSA is July 1, 2017.

Raimondo put the program into her budget, but the legislature must still pass a final budget and it remains to be seen if the proposal will be included.

“We’ve received hundreds of letters and emails about it. People are saying they want this,” Raimondo said, noting that many parents are up nights worrying about their children being buried in student loans. “It’s a very small investment. I hope the legislature does the right thing and passes this.”

Susan Gale is Founder and Publisher of Rhode Island Parent Magazine.