Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo has proposed to have the Ocean State join New York to offer free public college tuition to the residents of her state, after eligibility for Federal and State need-based scholarships are considered. The presidents of Rhode Island’s three public colleges, the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI), Rhode Island College and the University of Rhode Island, have expressed their support. 

There are some differences between her proposal and the one recently presented by Governor Andrew Cuomo for New York. They are:

  • Rhode Island residents would be eligible for free tuition either the first two years of community college or the last two years at either Rhode Island College or the University of Rhode Island.
  • All Rhode Island high school graduates would qualify, regardless of family income, provided that they attend college after their graduation. No “gap years” are permitted, except for military service.

By contrast, Governor Cuomo has proposed that New York residents receive free public college tuition for the duration of their undergraduate education. But he has also proposed an income cap of $125,000 for eligible students and their families.

Governor Raimondo’s proposal for Rhode Island is estimated to cost $30 million to aid 8,000 undergraduates. The governor claims that this amount would be less than one half of one percent of the state’s budget.  Rhode Island is expected to have less than 9,400 new high school graduates at the end of the current year, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. That’s a very small population compared to New York.

There’s little fault with a free public college proposal when considering the costs to attend the community college. Tuition and fees at CCRI are currently less than $5,000. The neediest students already qualify to pay no tuition through the Federal Pell Grant as well as need-based state scholarships. To date, around a fifth of Rhode Island’s college students attend community college according to the Chronicle. 

The number of students who would receive full tuition from the proposed free public college program is likely to be small, and probably sustainable if CCRI does not plan on dramatic fee increases from year to year. But it will certainly drive up demand for a community college degree. If a free public college plan applies to the community college, the state college and the flagship state university, the increased demand for an education at the four-year colleges will create a push-back towards excess demand for the community college.

And how will free public college tuition help incoming students who must take remedial courses for no credit, and therefore need more than two years to finish an associates degree? Of course, the good news is that a student who needs that extra semester or two to finish the associates will pay less to complete a bachelor’s degree than their peer who struggles in the first two years at the four-year college.

There is also little fault with a free public college proposal when considering the costs of Rhode Island College, which charges just over $8,000 in resident tuition and fees. More than half of the full-time undergraduate student body—just over 3,000 students—already qualifies for need-based scholarship aid, and only 15 percent live on campus. The governor’s plan would cover only juniors and seniors, reducing the number of eligible residents even further.  My guess is that between 2,000 and 2,500 Rhode Island College students might benefit from free public college tuition, given the college’s enrollment at present.

But will this plan help the college to improve freshman and sophomore retention to the point where students make it to the third year tuition free? Rhode Island College has historically lost between a quarter and a fifth of a freshman class, of which 80 percent come from in state. Free tuition might be an incentive to stick around, provided a student finds an academic fit and can do the work. But the retention rate suggests that more students will need help as well as other incentives, including career-related employment.

The University of Rhode Island has not been a super-selective flagship state school. During the last admission cycle, more than 15,000 of the nearly 22,000 who applied were accepted into a freshman class of around 3,400 students—and nearly 60 percent came from outside Rhode Island. It’s easy to believe that the prospect of free public college tuition in the junior and senior years will attract more applications from in state. But there so few high school seniors in Rhode Island. Demand from in state won’t rise by much.

Over 80 percent of a  freshman class at the university returns for their sophomore year, typical of a good flagship school, but less than half of the students finish on time. I would certainly agree that the prospect of free tuition for the last two years will encourage more of them to stick around and graduate, but more academic advising should be available to help avoid remedial classes. In addition, around 75 percent of the full-time students—there are just over 14,000— already receive need-based scholarship aid.

Given how the enrollment breaks down between residents and non-residents, while the community college transfers from in state will have already used their free tuition opportunity, I would guess that 4,000 students at the University of Rhode Island will be thankful to the state for a tuition free junior or senior year. However, they will still need to pay student fees, which can still rise each year, as well as their room and board.

Free public college tuition might just work in Rhode Island, mainly because it is a small state and little money is needed to start the program. Governor Raimondo has to hope that other state and Federal need-based scholarship programs continue to survive so that her state does not have to cover those losses and that the colleges can hold tuition and fee increases to reasonable levels so that those who must pay can stay. At the same time all three schools will need to make a greater commitment to student success to help the governor deliver on the promise of free public college tuition.

For more insights on how financial aid programs and higher education policies in your state might, or might not, benefit your family, contact me at stuart@educatedquest.com or call me at 609-406-0062.

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