12 key things to know about Gov. Raimondo’s free college plan

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo announced a plan Monday to provide two years of free tuition to students who attend one of the state’s three public colleges, dramatically reducing the price tag for an associate or bachelor’s degree.

So how will the Rhode Island’s Promise scholarship program work?

Here’s an overview.

This makes college a realistic option for everyone.
The plan is simple. Beginning with students in the high school graduating class of 2017, Rhode Island will cover the cost of tuition and fees at the Community College of Rhode Island for two years – which basically means a free associate degree. If students choose to attend Rhode Island College or the University of Rhode Island, the state would pick up the cost of tuition and fees – but not room and board – for their junior and senior years of college. The governor’s top aides are quick to say they don’t expect every young person to attend college, but they want every kid to at least have the chance to attend college with significantly less concern over how they’re going to pay for it. They’re pointing to surveys of high school seniors in Rhode Island that show 90% of students want to attend college but only 65% of them are actually attending a higher education institution directly after graduating high school.

Rhode Island has a college persistence problem.
For all the talk locally and nationally about addressing the skills gap, there’s a major problem staring us all in the face that we tend to overlook: too many students start college, take on debt and drop out for one reason or another. Depending on how much you owe in student loans, having debt with no degree can be crippling. You may struggle to find the job you wanted. You’re more likely to default on loans. And we know that once you leave college, it’s far less likely you’ll return. In Rhode Island, only 5% of students at CCRI earn their associate degree within two years. At RIC, only 14% earn a bachelor’s degree in four years. At URI, 49% of students earn their bachelor’s degree in four years. Just like many schools around the country, college graduation rates rise when you start to count students who complete school in five or six years. But taking longer to graduate also means you the run risk of exhausting federal grant options – which can make college even more expensive than it already is.

The governor thinks the plan will cost $30 million a year.
It will probably take a few years to have a definitive annual cost for the program. It’s tough to predict whether more students will take advantage of the front end scholarship – for community college – or wait until their junior and senior years at RIC. (If the majority of students are going to CCRI for free, the cost could be lower, although that depends on whether we see a huge spike in enrollment.) For its estimate on costs, the governor’s office is projecting a 25% increase in enrollment at each of the state’s three colleges. For the first two years of implementation, the cost is projected to be much lower because students from the high school class of 2017 won’t yet be in their third year of college. The governor’s budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year will set aside $10 million for the program, which includes $3 million for scholarships to CCRI, $6 million in investments to the colleges and $1 million to get the word out about the program and encourage students to fill out their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). By the 2020-21 fiscal year, the projected annual cost to the state is expected to be about $30 million. In-state tuition and fees for incoming URI students is $13,792 per year; at RIC, it’s $8,776; and at CCRI, it’s $4,564.

There is no payback clause if you don’t finish school.
Students who choose the CCRI route will get a two-year scholarship to earn their associate degree. If they need a third year to complete the degree, they would have to pay out of pocket in year three. Students who choose RIC or URI will need to pay for years one and two, but will be eligible for free tuition in their junior and senior years. If they end up needing a fifth or sixth years, they would have to pay out of pocket. There is no scenario where students would have to return their scholarship money.

.The eligibility requirements are pretty straightforward.
On the high school side, there are very few restrictions at all. There is no minimum GPA a student must carry and there are no family income thresholds that must be met to qualify for the scholarships. Students won’t be required to take the PARCC exam or another standardized test in order to receive a scholarship (unless local school districts require a standardized exam as part of their graduation requirements). If your grades are good enough to get into RIC or URI, you are eligible for free tuition in years three and four of school. (CCRI accepts all students.) Students are required to be from Rhode Island in order to receive a scholarship. The state will use the same system to determine residency as it uses when awarding in-state tuition: you basically need to have spent three years at a Rhode Island high school, which includes private school and homeschool. With a few exceptions (military, medical issues), students must enroll in college in the fall following their high school graduation. Students must complete a FAFSA because they are required to secure as much non-loan financial aid as they can before getting their scholarship. It’s one scholarship per student – meaning that students who have the state cover the cost of CCRI can’t turn around and receive another scholarship if they transfer to RIC or URI. Similarly, a family isn’t allowed to cover the cost of CCRI out of pocket and then have the state pick up the tab at RIC or URI two years later. It’s either you go to CCRI right after high school or you enter RIC or URI right after high school and receive the scholarship in your junior and senior years. For students who attend RIC or URI, the only requirement is that you must be a junior (that’s 60 credits plus a declared major) and be in good academic standing (2.0 GPA). UPDATE: Rhode Island already has an in-state tuition policy for undocumented immigrants. The governor’s office says that undocumented students who attend high school in the state will be eligible for the scholarship.

Students will have some skin in the game.
A lot of people are probably wondering why the state wouldn’t cover the entire cost of URI and RIC rather than just two years if the price tag is relatively low. One answer, of course, is that offering free four-year college could make the whole program just a little too expensive for state lawmakers to swallow. But perhaps just as important, students at the two four-year colleges will have a major incentive for staying on track during their first two years of school. If a student knows he or she won’t see another college bill as long as they make it to their junior year in two years, it’s safe to assume they’ll do everything they can to get there.

Rhode Island could become a model for the rest of the country.
Obviously the governor’s aides aren’t the first people to ever come up with the idea of covering the cost of college for many students. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed free tuition for low- and middle-income students at the CUNY and SUNY schools. Tennessee and Oregon have programs that cover the cost of community college. Kalamazoo, Michigan, covers the cost of college for all students who attended its public schools for four years. New Haven offers a scholarship for students with strong attendance and academic performance. But it looks like Rhode Island will become the first state in the country to implement this type of scholarship program.

The governor wants the program to be written into law.
This is important. If Rhode Island families believe the state is going to pay for a large chunk of a child’s college tuition, they shouldn’t have to worry that the program will just be stripped from the budget when the state is facing a deficit. Of course, no one can say with 100% certainty the program will be in place forever, but the governor wants the General Assembly to approve a law that outlines the terms of the scholarship rather than just setting a line item in the budget. Raimondo’s staff also says it has and will continue to factor in spending on the program in its five-year budget projections.

If you graduated high school before 2017, you’re not eligible.
Sorry, recent college graduates. You won’t be getting reimbursed by the state for your last two years of school. More importantly, young people who may have already dropped out of college or never attended in the first place won’t get to take advantage of program. This might be tough to swallow for some Rhode Islanders, but it probably makes sense. If you said everyone under 21 is eligible, you’d have a bunch of angry 22-year-olds on your hands. Drawing a line in the sand with new high school graduates seems to be a more natural cutoff. The state does offer a number of programs for older people to go back to school, but none are quite like this proposed scholarship.

Pay attention to how the private colleges react.
Rhode Island has a lot of excellent private colleges, but it will be interesting to see how they compete with this scholarship program. If you’re getting in to Brown or RISD, there’s a good chance you’re going to attend those schools. But if you have the choice of spending more than $30,000 a year at one of the other private schools or attending RIC or URI with the Promise scholarship, it doesn’t seem like a difficult decision at all. It’s worth noting the private schools tend to accept more students from out of state anyway, so maybe officials won’t raise concerns. It’s hard to imagine any of the college presidents publicly opposing the plan, but they’ll certainly need to consider whether it will have a negative impact on their enrollment.

The scholarship could be a great sales tool for Rhode Island.
When Governor Raimondo was pushing for General Electric to pick Rhode Island for its corporate headquarters, she used a PowerPoint presentation to highlight the differences between her state and Massachusetts. She even compared private schools and the type of house a person could buy for $400,000 in Rhode Island versus Massachusetts. It’s unrealistic to say a college scholarship might have put Raimondo’s pitch over the top when it comes to General Electric, but there’s a good chance the program will be among the first things she points to when she recruits businesses moving forward. It could make Rhode Island a more attractive place to live and she’ll have the added benefit of being able to call it the first statewide tuition program in the country. The scholarship may also be what it takes to convince people who work in Rhode Island to live in the state rather than traveling just over the line to live in Massachusetts.

The governor and the General Assembly have done a lot for education in two years.
Rhode Island still has a lot of work to do when it comes to improving outcomes for students, but state leaders have started to lay a strong foundation since 2015. From providing more college-level courses to high school students to allowing kids to take their SAT in school, the scholarship program is really the culmination of a lot of strategic investments that have been made.

It still must be approved by the General Assembly.
It’s difficult to imagine a scenario where state lawmakers would oppose the governor’s plan, but there’s always a chance. Raimondo will include initial funding for the proposal in her budget later this week, but we won’t have a great grasp on where everything stands until later this spring.

Correction: URI’s four-year graduation rate has been edited to reflect a more recent figure.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan