Students prepare for free community college to be a reality

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Kelly Slader is one of many rising high school seniors who will be weighing their options for college over the next year, including whether to take advantage of a new free tuition program at CCRI that is expected to pass the General Assembly by the end of the month.

“Everybody’s thinking about scholarships or thinking about financial aid, worrying about how they’re going to pay for it,” Slader said. The 17-year-old will be entering her senior year at Beacon Charter High School for the Arts in Woonsocket this fall.

“I’ve been considering colleges in New York with musical theater,” Slader told Eyewitness News. “But if I have free college right here, it seems like a waste to not do that.”

The Rhode Island Promise program has been scaled back from Gov. Gina Raimondo’s proposal at the beginning of the year, which would have included CCRI, URI and RIC in the two-year free tuition scholarship. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who opposed the plan, struck a compromise with the governor and other legislative leaders to apply the program just to CCRI.

“Our community college is our institution that does a lot of job training,” Mattiello said in a budget briefing to House members on Tuesday. “So that is the appropriate place to do that program.”

As it’s written in the budget approved by the House Finance Committee, the scholarship would be granted after other financial aid options are exhausted to Rhode Island residents who graduate from high school starting in 2017. Students who would otherwise be eligible for in-state tuition would be eligible for two free years at CCRI. They can earn an associate degree in those two years or continue their educations at CCRI or another college.

There are strings attached: the bill says students will have to maintain a 2.5 GPA, be “on track” to graduate on time and pledge to remain in Rhode Island for two years after graduation. (A proposal to also require community service has since been dropped.)

It’s unclear so far how that pledge will be enforced; the bill leaves it up to CCRI to form a policy regarding the pledge. CCRI spokesman Patrick Stone said college officials are “thrilled” about the proposal and are still reviewing it.

“We are in the process of reviewing the details of the program and we are prepared to aggressively promote the RI Promise to our state’s new high school graduates in accordance with the program’s requirements, upon approval by the General Assembly,” Stone said.

Kelly Slader said she wasn’t sure how she feels about the requirement to stay in the state, but understands why it was added to the bill.

“I don’t love it, but I think it makes sense,” Slader said. “You can’t just give people free college and expect nothing in return.”

The program is also only a pilot; the bill says the scholarship will be offered to high school graduates for the next four years, and then will be re-evaluated.

“We’ll take a look and see what benefit that brings to us,” Mattiello said at Tuesday’s briefing. “The postsecondary education commissioner will do an evaluation at that time.”

The legislature would need to re-approve the program or pass a different program in order for it to continue to be offered beyond the high school class of 2020. The presidents of the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College are hoping the state would include their institutions in the program in the future.

“We are hopeful the Council on Postsecondary Education, the governor and the General Assembly will re-assess RI Promise next year and consider increasing their investments in URI,” President David Dooley said in a statement.

Rhode Island College President Frank Sanchez called the proposal a “great first step,” but expressed concerns about his own college.

“There is potential for RIC to see a drop in enrollments if the Promise only includes the community college,” Sanchez said. “We need to improve access to an affordable four-year degree in Rhode Island; there is still some work needed in order to get this done.”

CCRI junior Rain Jolicoeur said the new scholarship has been the talk of campus, although current students would not be eligible. “Just the fact that people are going to be able to have the opportunity to be more educated, it really brings out the best in Rhode Island,” she said.

Rhode Island Republican Party Chairman Brandon Bell said the GOP opposes the free tuition program, calling the budget as a whole “bloated” and “bogus.”

“We don’t need a new spending plan when we have such a huge structural deficit,” Bell said.

The compromise tuition plan is expected to cost the state $3 million in the first year. The governor’s expanded proposal would have cost $10 million.

House lawmakers are slated to vote on the budget on Thursday.