Rai­mondo’s free tu­ition in­qui­si­tion

The gov­er­nor’s plan, aimed at help­ing stu­dents, fam­i­lies and par­tic­i­pat­ing col­leges, is draw­ing some heavy crit­i­cism

Pawtucket Times - - FRONT PAGE - By ERICA MOSER emoser@woonsock­et­call.com

On Fri­day, Moody’s In­vestors Ser­vice re­leased a short re­port pre­dict­ing that over time, free col­lege tu­ition pro­pos­als will be mod­er­ately credit pos­i­tive for par­tic­i­pat­ing pub­lic col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties.

On the down­side, the re­port stated, “Ex­pan­sion of the pro­grams to four-year pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties would neg­a­tively af­fect fouryear pri­vate col­leges with more lim­ited re­gional brands.” It noted that “en­roll­ment ex­pan­sion could also lead to the need for ad­di­tional fa­cil­i­ties.”

Kevin Gal­lagher, deputy chief of staff to Gov. Gina Rai­mondo, is feel­ing pos­i­tive about both of these con­cerns. He thinks the gov­er­nor’s free tu­ition plan could put pres­sure on pri­vate in­sti­tu­tions to keep their tu­itions rates low.

He also noted that the Com­mu­nity Col­lege of Rhode Is­land and Rhode Is­land Col­lege have seen his­tor­i­cally de­clin­ing en­roll­ments, mean­ing there is room for their num­bers to grow. The Times

Gal­lagher spoke to on Fri­day about the mer­its of the Rhode Is­land’s Prom­ise schol­ar­ship, a free tu­ition plan Rai­mondo in­tro­duced last month with an es­ti­mated price tag of $30 mil­lion. At the same time, House Speaker Ni­cholas Mat­tiello was else­where tweet­ing that the plan is “truly un­sus­tain­able and fis­cally ir­re­spon­si­ble.”

The gov­er­nor’s plan would have the gov­ern­ment pay for two years of col­lege at CCRI, RIC or URI for any stu­dent who has at­tended high school in Rhode Is­land for at least three years and who en­rolls in col­lege im­me­di­ately af­ter high school.

Stu­dents have two op­tions: to get their schol­ar­ship for two years at CCRI, or to get the money for

“What is truly un­sus­tain­able and fis­cally ir­re­spon­si­ble is (Gov. Gina Rai­mondo’s) plan to make us the only state in the na­tion to five away ‘free’ tax­payer-funded col­lege tu­ition.” — House Speaker Ni­cholas Mat­tiello, who took to Twit­ter to rail against the free tu­ition pro­pos­als

their ju­nior and se­nior years at RIC or URI. For RIC and URI sopho­mores to be el­i­gi­ble the fol­low­ing year, they must have de­clared a ma­jor and earned 60 cred­its.

The schol­ar­ship also re­quires stu­dents to main­tain a 2.0 GPA, which is con­sid­ered good aca­demic stand­ing.

If the Gen­eral As­sem­bly ap­proves the gov­er­nor’s bud­get, the pro­gram would be­gin with the class of 2017.

“We can’t con­tinue to say to stu­dents, ‘You have to have a de­gree or cre­den­tial be­yond high school, you have to go to col­lege, you have to do some­thing be­yond high school’ and not pro­vide ev­ery stu­dent a path to get there,” Gal­lagher said. He also noted, “We’re not say­ing ev­ery­body has to go to col­lege, but we’re say­ing ev­ery­one should have the op­tion.”

Ac­cord­ing to the Rhode Is­land Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion, 90 per­cent of high school se­niors sur­veyed want to go to col­lege, but only 65 per­cent ac­tu­ally do.

The Rhode Is­land’s Prom­ise plan has an es­ti­mated an­nual cost of a lit­tle un­der $30 mil­lion when fully im­ple­mented. The cal­cu­la­tions are based on an es­ti­mate that en­roll­ment at each of the three in­sti­tu­tions will grow by 25 per­cent, due to the ap­peal of free tu­ition.

Such growth puts the num­ber of first-time, full-time, in­state stu­dents for FY 2019 at 2,923 for CCRI, 2,268 for URI and 1,980 for RIC. For each school, the cal­cu­la­tions then in­volve mul­ti­ply­ing the pro­jected num­ber of stu­dents by tu­ition and manda­tory fees, and sub­tract­ing Pell and other fed­eral grants.

For URI and RIC, it also in­volves sub­tract­ing ex­ist­ing Prom­ise grants. The fund­ing gap comes out to $5.7 mil­lion each for CCRI and RIC, and $18.1 mil­lion for URI.

Gal­lagher thinks the 25 per­cent fig­ure is gen­er­ous, not­ing that in the two years since Ten­nessee im­ple­mented its Ten­nessee Prom­ise schol­ar­ship, first-time fresh­man en­roll­ment in the state’s pub­lic col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties has in­creased by 13 per­cent.

Not­ing that he’d love to get to 25 per­cent but doesn’t be­lieve it’ll hap­pen overnight, Gal­lagher said, “One of our con­cerns was that we didn’t

want peo­ple think­ing that we were hid­ing the ball or try­ing to make this cost less than it ac­tu­ally will. We wanted to give our­selves enough cush­ion.”

The model as­sumes that ev­ery stu­dent who starts also fin­ishes.

Gal­lagher noted that this pro­gram would be less than half of one per­cent of the state’s $9 bil­lion bud­get, and Rai­mondo has called it a drop in the bucket. Still, many are ques­tion­ing: where is this money go­ing to come from?

The funds are com­ing from the gen­eral rev­enue, Gal­lagher said, and there will be no broad-based tax in­creases – the only tax in­crease is the cig­a­rette tax. As rev­enue sources, Gal­lagher cited sav­ings from the “Rein­vent­ing Med­i­caid” pro­gram and the new agree­ment for on­line re­tailer Ama­zon to col­lect sales tax.

Ex­ist­ing schol­ar­ships from state gov­ern­ment will not be im­pacted.

Rai­mondo an­nounced the Rhode Is­land’s Prom­ise schol­ar­ship not long af­ter New York Gov. An­drew Cuomo an­nounced the Ex­cel­sior Schol­ar­ship for the Em­pire State, a plan lim­ited to fam­i­lies mak­ing less than $125,000 per year.

Gal­lagher said Rhode Is­land con­sid­ered a sim­i­lar route but “hon­estly felt that means-test­ing will leave out too many mid­dle-in­come fam­i­lies.” His ex­am­ple was that a fam­ily of three who makes $124,000 would re­ceive a full schol­ar­ship, while a fam­ily of six mak­ing $126,000 would not re­ceive schol­ar­ships for any of their chil­dren.

“The beauty of this plan is that there are no win­ners and losers. Some kids aren’t get­ting it at the ex­pense of oth­ers,” Gal­lagher said, adding that “we don’t means-test K12 ed­u­ca­tion.”

An­other op­tion con­sid­ered – but not in­cor­po­rated – was to re­quire stu­dents who get the schol­ar­ship to stay in the state for a set pe­riod of time af­ter grad­u­at­ing, as is the case with the Rhode Is­land Na­tional Guard. Gal­lagher said that Gen­eral Christo­pher Cal­la­han called it an ad­min­is­tra­tive nightmare.

The gov­er­nor’s staff has spo­ken with all of the pri­vate col­leges in Rhode Is­land, and there has been mixed re­ac­tion, ac­cord­ing to Gal­lagher.

“Some of them were ex­cited about it and didn’t think that it was go­ing to have very much of an im­pact on them,” he said, “and some were more wor­ried about the type of pres­sure that they were go­ing to feel on their tu­ition rates.”

“Mar­ket dis­rup­tion to the pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties” is one of the many con­cerns that Mike Sten­house, CEO of the Rhode Is­land Cen­ter for Free­dom & Pros­per­ity, a con­ser­va­tive­lean­ing think tank, has about the gov­er­nor’s plan. The first rea­son he gave The Times

for op­pos­ing the plan was a be­lief that the state needs to fo­cus on get­ting K12 ed­u­ca­tion right first.

Gal­lagher noted that the state is in­creas­ing con­tri­bu­tions to K-12 schools by more than $45 mil­lion this year alone and quoted Rai­mondo as say­ing, “I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time,” as­sert­ing that the state has to fo­cus on both.

Sten­house also be­lieves the pro­gram “sends a wrong mes­sage, that the nanny state of Rhode Is­land will take care of you all the way from your preschool years all the way through your col­lege years.” In­stead, he said, “we need to en­cour­age self-suf­fi­ciency; we need to en­cour­age mer­i­toc­racy.”

He also is against the pro­posal for bud­getary rea­sons, feels that busi­nesses aren’t go­ing to come here just be­cause there are more col­lege grad­u­ates, and be­lieves that “when you give some­thing away, it kind of cheap­ens it.”

Sten­house went on to say, “The cyn­i­cal side of me is: It’s a vote-get­ting ploy for mil­len­nial vot­ers.”

House Speaker Ni­cholas Mat­tiello, a con­ser­va­tive Demo­crat, took to Twit­ter on Fri­day to crit­i­cize Rai­mondo over both her car tax and free tu­ition plans.

“I have heard form the cit­i­zens of the state and I un­der­stand that they want the bur­den­some car tax elim­i­nated,” he wrote. “The gov­er­nor is tone deaf on this is­sue and should start lis­ten­ing to the peo­ple of Rhode Is­land. What is truly un­sus­tain­able and fis­cally ir­re­spon­si­ble is her plan to make us the only state in the na­tion to give away ‘free’ tax­payer-funded col­lege tu­ition.”

David Cruise, a se­nior ad­viser to the gov­er­nor, took to Twit­ter for the first time since July to re­spond. He noted that the gov­er­nor hears from peo­ple across the state, and that while 70 per­cent of jobs be­ing cre­ated in Rhode Is­land re­quire a de­gree past high school, fewer than 50 per­cent of peo­ple have one.

The gov­er­nor’s of­fice has been keep­ing track of emails prais­ing the plan.

“This is a won­der­ful op­por­tu­nity for all classes of fam­i­lies in Rhode Is­land,” wrote one mother of three. “As a mid­dle class fam­ily, we fi­nally feel like we may pos­si­bly get a break.”

A sin­gle mom of a sev­en­th­grade stu­dent said she hopes she now won’t have to some­day tell her son he can’t af­ford to go to URI.

One high school teacher and mother wrote, “I see first­hand not only how im­por­tant it is to con­tinue one’s ed­u­ca­tion to en­sure fu­ture in­de­pen­dence and good cit­i­zen­ship, but also how ex­pen­sive and chal­leng­ing it is to af­ford that post-sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion.”

Ac­cord­ing to the gov­er­nor’s of­fice, the House Fi­nance Com­mit­tee is ex­pected to hear the gov­er­nor’s pro­posal on March 15.

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