Raimondo: On college tuition plan, ‘I struggled with the word free’

Governor Raimondo speaks to The Times' Frank Bruni on May 31, 2017. (credit: YouTube)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Gov. Gina Raimondo took her pitch for a new tuition program to the Big Apple on Wednesday, making her case at a New York Times event while acknowledging second thoughts about her team’s initial decision to brand the plan “free college.”

“I struggled with the word free,” Raimondo told Times columnist Frank Bruni during an interview at the paper’s summit on higher education. “I was ultimately convinced to go for that because – to capture people’s attention.”

“The reality is, if you want a four-year degree we’re only paying the tuition portion for two years,” she said. “There’s books, there’s fees, there’s living expenses – most students still have to work. So it isn’t actually free.”

Raimondo’s one-day trip to New York came as the tuition plan faces significant skepticism in the General Assembly, particularly after the recent disclosure that the state is facing a shortfall of $134 million in the new budget year that starts July 1. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, a fellow Democrat, has been resistant to the idea since she introduced it in January, though it has supporters including Providence Rep. Aaron Regunberg and Middletown Sen. Lou DiPalma.

Raimondo has requested $10 million in the new state budget to get the program off the ground, and her staff estimates it will cost $30 million annually once fully up and running. But the governor repeatedly told Bruni she’s open to tweaking the plan to deal with “budget realities,” including by placing income limits on who qualifies, as a number of lawmakers has suggested.

However, Raimondo made clear she would still prefer to avoid the income limits, saying estimates by her staff show it would save little money. “There are actually very, very, very few students who come from upper-income who go to one of our institutions of public education,” she said.

And, she added, “I think those two years ought to be, as a matter of right, part of our public education promise to every kid in Rhode Island.”

Asked about another tweak that’s been floated – requiring that students who use the tuition benefit stay in Rhode Island after graduating – Raimondo argued that enforcing such a mandate would be a logistical nightmare.

“Having run a government for two years now, it’s really hard to execute well,” she said. “And so I wanted the simplest, easier to administer, easiest to implement program, so we got it right.”

(Republican Governors Association spokesman John Burke quickly seized on the latter comment, saying in a statement: “It seems Raimondo has adopted the motto of her failed neighbor Dan Malloy in Connecticut, and is admitting to voters that ‘governing is hard.'”)

Raimondo has sold the tuition plan in part as helping create a skilled workforce that will attract companies to Rhode Island, and she received a warm reception from the audience at the Times forum. The first audience question she received was, “Will you please run for president?”

Raimondo laughed. “That’s very kind,” she replied. “I have a lot of wood to chop in Rhode Island.”

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook