Fung, critics challenge Raimondo’s free college proposal

CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — Earlier this week, Gov. Gina Raimondo announced an ambitious plan to offer two years of free tuition at Rhode Island’s public colleges and universities.

Raimondo promoted her plan at her annual State of the State address Tuesday night, casting it as part of a set of initiatives she hopes will boost Rhode Islanders’ skills so they can succeed in the modern economy.

On Wednesday, the governor’s proposal was met with applause from the group that stands to benefit most: high school students.

Saying college should be challenging, but paying for it shouldn’t be, she touted her plan before a crowd at Cranston High School East.

“We’ve got to give you a hand, a boost, a hand to get that degree or credential so you can go get a j-o-b,” Raimondo said.

If approved by the state legislature, the proposal would offer two free years at the University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College, or Community College of Rhode Island beginning with the class of 2017. She predicts it will cost the state about $30 million a year.

In-Depth: 12 key things to know about Gov. Raimondo’s free college plan »
In-Depth: 12 key things to know about Gov. Raimondo’s free college plan »

“We have the money,” said Raimondo. “We just have to decide, are we up for it? And I think we are.”

While the students appeared to approve Raimondo’s pitch, the city’s mayor said he’s not sold on the plan yet.

“I would love to see all students attend state schools for free,” said Mayor Allan Fung. “But at the end of the day, someone needs to balance the checkbook and prove that the state really can execute on this. What we can’t afford is another promise that can’t be kept.”

Other critics, such as Mike Stenhouse of the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity, think the money could be better spent elsewhere.

“We believe the state should focus on getting K-12 right,” Stenhouse said on Wednesday.

Stenhouse said he believes more research needs to be done to see what impacts the proposal might have on enrollment at private institutions like Providence College and Bryant University. He said he worries it’s a politically motivated plan that will get rushed through the legislature.

“In the end, it’s the taxpayers and the families of Rhode Island and the small businesses of Rhode Island that end up paying for it,” Stenhouse added.

After Raimondo’s speech on Tuesday, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said he thinks the free college idea is a “laudable goal,” but he isn’t taking a position on it yet. He said the House Finance Committee will vet the specifics of the plan.

Raimondo is set to release her budget proposal for the 2017-18 fiscal year on Thursday.