Raimondo’s free tuition inquisition
The governor’s plan, aimed at helping students, families and participating colleges, is drawing some heavy criticism
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.