House lawmakers begin vetting proposal for free two years of college

From right to left, Gov. Raimondo sits with Central High School students Jeanyues Knight-Muhumgabo and Jaislene Vinas (Photo by Dan McGowan, WPRI)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – In a rare appearance before the House Finance Committee, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo on Wednesday urged lawmakers to approve her proposal to provide two years of free public college to new high school graduates.

Raimondo, a Democrat in her first term, was the first of more than 200 individuals scheduled to testify on the Rhode Island’s Promise Scholarship Program, which would cover the first two years of tuition and fees at the Community College of Rhode Island and pay for the final two years of school for students at the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College.

“This proposal isn’t about giving something away for free,” Raimondo told the committee. “It’s about guaranteeing access to opportunity and job training for every Rhode Islander.”

The governor’s proposal has faced opposition from House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who called it “unsustainable and fiscally irresponsible” last month. But Raimondo started her testimony by praising the work state lawmakers have done during her first two years in office. She said the tuition proposal represents the “next step” in the state’s effort to provide more training and education young Rhode Islanders.

“At the end of the day this isn’t about me, it isn’t about you, it isn’t about politics,” Raimondo said. “It’s about giving Rhode Islanders a shot. We have an opportunity to give thousands of Rhode Islanders a shot at a good job that they otherwise won’t have.”

At two different points during the hearing, Raimondo called the plan’s projected $30-million annual price tag by 2021 “a drop in the bucket” financially. The cost estimate relies on a projected 25% increase in enrollment at each of the state’s three public schools, but does not factor in any potential increases in tuition or fees in the coming years. The program is designed to be a “last-dollar scholarship,” meaning students must exhaust all other forms of non-loan financial aid before they receive state funds.

Raimondo’s testimony drew loud applause from more than 100 high school students who watched her testimony on television outside the hearing room. Kevin Gallagher, one of the governor’s top deputies, Education Commissioner Ken Wagner and Postsecondary Commissioner Jim Purcell were left to answer questions from the committee.

The committee then grilled Gallagher, Wagner and Purcell on different aspects of the proposal, including a provision that requires students to remain in good academic standing in order to keep their scholarship and the projected cost.

Rep. Carlos Tobon, a Pawtucket Democrat, said he wants to “make sure we don’t become a society that strives for the minimum,” referring to students potentially only being required to achieve a 2.0 GPA to keep the scholarship. Gallagher said GPA requirements tend to benefit white and more affluent students and the state wants to the program to benefit as many as students as possible.

Rep. Antonio Giarrusso, an East Greenwich Republican, questioned how state officials came up with a cost projection for the program, noting that families who don’t qualify for financial aid may be eligible for the largest scholarships. Purcell said the governor’s office based its projection on the amount of aid existing students receive.

Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, a Democrat from Jamestown, focused on the scholarship for students attending CCRI, asking about students who are forced to take remedial courses. Gallagher explained that students are required to maintain a full-course load – 12 credits per semester – but if they are forced to attend CCRI for a third year, they will have to pay out of pocket. Students who receive the scholarship at CCRI are also not eligible for free tuition at URI or RIC.

Nearly every individual who testified urged lawmakers to approve the program. Some students reminded committee members which House districts they live in, a not-so-subtle reminder that it won’t be long before they’re eligible to vote.

Jaislene Vinas, the senior class president at Central High School in Providence, told the committee the majority of students she knows would be the first in their families to attend college. She called college a “lifeline.”

“We want to be successful,” Vinas said. “We want to change the world. But we just want a chance.”

The scholarship program is also expected to be vetted by the House Health, Education and Welfare Committee in the coming months. It faces uncertain prospects in the Assembly thanks to Mattiello’s opposition and mixed responses from rank-and-file lawmakers, though Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed strongly supports the plan.

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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