Governor Gina Raimondo joined Rhode Island College (RIC) president Frank Sánchez on Thursday morning to discuss the potential benefits of expanding the Rhode Island Promise scholarship program to the state university.
The proposed expansion to the Promise program – known more controversially, informally and somewhat inaccurately as the “free college” scholarship – would supplement full-time RIC students with tuition funding for their final two years of their four-year degree program, provided they maintained a 2.5 GPA in the first two years and maintain a schedule of 60 credit hours (meaning they stay full time).
“This is a game changer for Rhode Islanders,” said Sánchez. “It says if you’re serious about getting a four-year college degree, you’re willing to work hard and go full time, the state is then going to help you get over the finish line.”
During the hour-long conference at RIC’s Donovan Dining Center, Raimondo went down a list of reasons why she believes in the expansion of the program, which started at the Community College of Rhode Island prior to the 2017 fall semester.
“The biggest reason is to give you a chance. That’s the bottom line,” she told the students. “I’ve always said the hardest part of college shouldn’t be paying for it, and unfortunately sometimes – most times – it is.”
Raimondo is adamant that the Promise program is an economic driver, as helping more students get post-secondary degrees will increase the overall size of the talent pool in Rhode Island, which should be an attractant to businesses.
“The single biggest thing we can do to improve this economy and make Rhode Island the state of choice for fast-growing economies is pump out more college graduates, pump out more people with credentials and pump out more people with skills,” Raimondo said. “I talk to businesses every single day, and they’re not talking to me about the cost of doing business. They’re talking to me about an educated workforce.”
Of course, increasing the talent pool for Rhode Island by investing in Rhode Island students only works if those students decide to stay in the state following their education. To this point, Sánchez mentioned that RIC is the only university in the state – public or private – that can boast 70 percent of its students overall stay in Rhode Island after graduation.
Subsidizing tuition for college students could pay off in other ways, too, Sánchez reasoned. He said that RIC students already have the lowest loan debt of any university in the state, and cutting that amount further in half by not forcing students into loans for their final two years would enable them to contribute to the state’s economy sooner.
“If they don’t have those loans, then they’re more likely to buy a car – they’re more likely to be able to invest in the economy,” he said. “That return on investment is fairly immediate, because they’re not paying down their loan debt.”
Raimondo contended that expanding the program made good financial sense, not only because of its comparatively low cost – it is projected to cost $2 million total in the upcoming budget, which is currently projected at just under $10 billion, equaling two one-hundredths of one percent of the overall budget to fund the program – but also because it has achieved fast results at CCRI.
CCRI recently publicized that they have seen nearly double the number of students on track to graduate since the Promise program began, including nearly double the amounts of students of color and low income that have enrolled.
Proponents also contend that the availability of the Promise scholarship, in which all other forms of financial aid must be exhausted before state dollars kick in, encourages those of lower economic prosperity to apply for financial aid when they might not otherwise have bothered, opening up federal Pell Grants (which do not need to be repaid) to many more people and expanding college access to more Rhode Islanders.
“It was an experiment, now we know it’s a success,” Raimondo said. “This is no longer ‘Will it work? Has it been a success?’ We know it’s going to work. As governor, we spend a lot of money on a lot of things. And you want to put more money into what you know works. And we know this works.”
Four underclassmen students were also chosen to speak about what the scholarship would mean to them if it became available, as they would all be eligible to receive it for their final two years at RIC should the legislature include its funding in the new spending bill.
“For someone who has put in the hard work to be eligible for something like this, I feel like I’m getting a pat on the back from the college and the state,” said Kyle Canales, a sophomore from Lincoln.
Canales, who is a resident assistant (RA) at one of RIC’s dormitory halls, said he has heard plenty of stories from his peers who are unable to afford housing after they deplete savings from their high school years within the first year of college. Once they face taking out loans or taking on multiple jobs, they often drift from the college entirely.
Mistura Ottun, a Pawtucket native, explained how she works three jobs – two of them on campus, one at Providence Place – and commutes via RIPTA buses for an hour to and from campus in order to not take on loan debt. However, the trade-off from working so hard to avoid debt means that she could no longer continue volunteering work in Pawtucket, which is a passion of hers. She said the Promise scholarship could open up opportunities for students like her to give back while also working towards their futures.
“It’s a promise that students will work hard and give back to the community and that’s all I really want,” Ottun said. “I love my community, I serve my community and I will continue to serve, but I think with this promise put into action, this scholarship, I think it will not only make it easier for not only leaders and students like me, but students across the community.”
Raimondo brought up how some critics of the Promise scholarship argue that students shouldn’t be given hand-outs, and that if things get really bad, they can get some financial assistance from their parents or other family members rather than tapping the state.
But that’s not an option for students like Aleida Gomes – a Cape Verde immigrant who settled first in Pawtucket and now lives in foster care in Woonsocket.
“I’m the one who has to give money to my mom, because she’s back in my country,” she said. “So, the money that I work for, I take a little bit and I send it back to her because they have a bad situation over there. Sometimes they don’t have food to eat, so they have to depend on me. It’s very tough if I’m the one asking if she can send me $500.”
Nigerian immigrant Adesubomi Shitu came to the country when she was a sophomore in high school. She said she is fortunate to have a mother who works multiple jobs in order to help her receive her education. However, her mother also stresses the importance of not relying on loans, so Adesubomi worked all throughout the last summer to pay her tuition bill this year.
Shitu believes that students have the deck stacked against them when they enter college, as many have never had to manage their own finances and do not understand how the decision to take on loans today can have lifelong consequences down the line.
“We didn’t learn budgeting. They didn’t teach us that in high school,” she said. “I’m lucky because my mother is helping me, but not every parent is like that.”
Quenby Hughes, president of the RIC faculty union, provided some context in terms of how much less affordable college has become in a shockingly short period of time, while still encouraging students that a college degree is very much a key to unlock doors to success.
“As an alum, I graduated in 1995,” she said. “When I attended here it was only a third of the cost for a RIC degree. Which means that even with Rhode Island Promise, it will still be more expensive than when I attended here…I think that what you guys can do with this degree is limitless. A RIC degree will take you wherever you want to go in life, particularly if you aren’t burdened with debt.”
Sánchez touted that stories like the ones shared by the students in the press conference are common at RIC, and that the Promise scholarship could help many students realize their potential, regardless of their economic status.
“We have so many students that are brilliant, hard-working, exceptional, talented students but many, over the course of their lives – whether it’s themselves or their parents – have not saved that 20 to 40 to 50 thousand dollars for college. They’ve been trying to make ends meet to put food on the table or support other family members, to sometimes support medical expenses,” he said.
“I think if there are ways to help students have that light at the end of the tunnel at junior and senior year, to say, gosh, if I work hard and I save some resources, maybe take out a loan, I know it won’t have to be for those four years,” Sánchez continued. “I can get through two years and then receive the Promise and get that dream of a college degree.”
Raimondo preemptively answered criticisms that the Promise program was a hand-out, contending rather that it is a nationally unprecedented attempt to address a changing economy – where many good jobs require an advanced degree, but acquiring that advanced degree often requires going into heavy debt.
“This is not a freebie,” she said. “This is facing the reality of this new economy and saying we’re going to make an investment so that more people can actually get the degree that they need to get a good job so you don’t have to work three jobs to make ends meet.”
A hearing on the proposed expansion of the Promise program is scheduled for today at the Rhode Island State House.