RI General Assembly Should Support Free Tuition

Last week, poll results indicated, among other things, that 60% of Rhode Islanders support Governor Gina Raimondo’s plan to cover two years of college tuition for qualifying Rhode Island students. State Republicans and conservative Democrats, most notably House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, have come out against the program, calling it a fiscally irresponsible giveaway. They could not be more wrong, or more out of touch with Rhode Island, and it’s time the doubters in the general assembly listen to their constituents.

The program would cover the cost of a full two years at the Community College of Rhode Island, or two years at the University of Rhode Island or Rhode Island College. The governor estimates her proposal will cost about $30 million annually once fully rolled out. There are no eligibility requirements for high schoolers—if your grades are good enough to get you into the pertinent schools, you’re eligible for reimbursement. You must complete a FAFSA form, as students are required to use whatever Federal aid they qualify for first. A student is eligible for one scholarship, meaning he or she can’t have the cost of CCRI covered and then have their final years at RIC or URI covered after that. The program incentivizes students to stay on track at school. The two years are only covered for students proceeding directly from high school to a community or four year college.

The program does not cover accessorial costs related to college. Housing, either on a campus or in an apartment, remains the responsibility of students and their families. Books, pens, notebooks, laptops, and other accessories that students rely on are not covered by the governor’s proposal either (unless any were to be given to a student as part of enrollment). It is strictly for the cost of tuition.

The potential benefits extend well beyond the savings young students pursuing a higher education will realize. Other cities and even entire states, including New York, Oregon, and Tennessee, have either proposed or enacted similar programs. For Rhode Island, this program would become a tool for attracting new residents and companies to the state. Rhode Island already benefits from its proximity to other cities and commerce centers outside of the state (most notably Boston), and this makes its communities even more competitive with the extremely costly ones in Massachusetts. Young adults intending to start families will certainly consider the savings they or their children may reap by becoming or remaining permanent Rhode Island residents.

Increasing the number of residents creates additional tax revenue for the state. People who set down roots in Rhode Island will contribute via the income tax, sales tax, and other fees that fund various programs and services. Freeing up money that might otherwise be tied up in student debt allows for that money to be spent on other things: consumer goods, homes, vehicles, and entertainment—including those sold by Rhode Islanders—have an opportunity to compete for the dollars those students and their families save. Even if families choose to save that money, it provides some financial comfort and security that would be lacking otherwise.

For middle class families, this is genuine and much needed relief. The cost of college has skyrocketed with the demand. Lowering the cost of state schools for all Rhode Islanders increases their attractiveness to top-tier students who can’t get the financial aid they need to attend other schools. Bringing them onto the campuses of state schools could boost the performance and allure of those institutions. That could possibly result in more students, both inside Rhode Island and from beyond its borders, seeking a spot at those schools. It might also compel Rhode Island’s private schools, such as Bryant University and Roger Williams University, to reign in costs.

Detractors have limited ammunition against the program. Some have pounced on the governor’s use of the word “free,” citing that Rhode Islanders are paying for it. The debate about the semantics is valid, but has little substance beyond that. It is genuine middle class relief in the service of empowering young Rhode Islanders to be competitive as they seek to start their own businesses and careers. Others have argued that the program is fiscally irresponsible, or that the governor’s priorities are wrong. The state has just passed legislation allowing tolls on large commercial trucks in order to pay for badly needed infrastructure repairs and upgrades. The much maligned car tax remains, and even state Democrats can’t agree on whether or not eliminating it is top priority. K-12 education across the state could be much improved, so why not use money that would pay for college tuition to give kids a solid educational foundation?

These are certainly worthy points. However, critics have to answer how they intend to make the state a more attractive place to live and work otherwise. Those who want the truck tolls removed have weak alternatives: make all drivers pay tolls to offset the cost of much needed repairs, curtail state services many Rhode Islanders like, or raise taxes. Virtually all of those make the state a less attractive place to live and work. Doing nothing is also not an option, as Rhode Island already has the worst roads and bridges in the state. A disaster is just around the corner without serious investments to improve the quality of roadways in the state, and Rhode Works seems like the best of limited options.

Speaker Mattiello believes elimination of the car tax ought to be the priority. I hate paying it, and I’m sure you do, too. But in the grand scheme of things, it really isn’t causing people to leave the state or choose another state when deciding on where to set down roots. If the goal is to make Rhode Island a more attractive place to live and work, the state needs to find ways to move the needle for prospective residents. The elimination of the car tax won’t, but knowing that your kids could get a much more affordable college education at state schools certainly could. With enough new residents wooed by that benefit, the additional income tax revenue could take the place of the car tax.

The argument that K-12 education is more deserving of the money fails to see the big picture. It’s absolutely true that early education is not up to par in every community. That’s true in the United States, in general. Improvements can and should be made immediately, but the effects of those improvements will take time to manifest themselves. In the meantime, students and families can get much needed financial relief, and the state can immediately improve the odds of expanding its tax base by becoming more attractive to prospective residents. There’s no reason the state can’t prioritize education at all levels, but it has to start somewhere. This is an initiative that matters to families in all communities that value the prospect of an affordable education for their kids.

Some residents favor medications to Raimondo’s proposal. I’ve heard arguments that there should be a minimum GPA requirement. I disagree, as the students may have financial situations that require working any number of hours in order to support themselves or their families. A job makes it harder to focus and study all the time. If a student’s grades are good enough to get accepted into the school and remain enrolled there in year two, that should be sufficient. Extra incentives already exist for good grades, including insurance discounts, and additional scholarships from schools and businesses.

Other residents believe the program should not apply to children of wealthy parents. I don’t believe it’s worth the trouble to exclude such students. According to the most recent census data available, only about 5% of Rhode Island households are considered high income (over $200,000 in income annually). What’s really saved by excluding those students, especially when many are more likely to consider private or out of state schools anyway? If all Rhode Islanders’ tax dollars contribute to funding this proposal, than all Rhode Island families should be eligible to take advantage. There are more constructive ways to close the inequality gap better left to the Federal government.

It’s time for the state to act enthusiastically on covering two years of tuition at state schools. The proposal has popular support among Rhode Islanders. It represents a smart investment more resistant to corruption and shady dealings than turning over taxpayer dollars to private businesses as the state has done in the past. It does right by hard-working families and students, and makes a meaningful statement to prospective residents that this is a great place to plant roots. It’s time for state legislators to work with the governor and get it done.

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