In her quest to secure funding to expand the Rhode Island Promise Program, Governor Gina Raimondo sat down with Senate finance committee chairman William Conley and students who have benefited from the scholarship program at the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) on Tuesday morning.
The proposed expansion of the Promise program would cost an estimated $3 million and would open up the last-dollar scholarship to students at Rhode Island College, providing them with free tuition for their final two years – but only after all other funding resources, like federal Pell Grants and other scholarships, have been exhausted first.
Approximately $2 million of that money would go towards opening up tuition assistance to part-time, adult students at CCRI, which president Meghan Hughes said would be an unprecedented, “groundbreaking” achievement for the state, and which Raimondo said would be a step towards opening up economic opportunities to more people in the state to cope with a consistently evolving society.
“[Rhode Islanders] should know the existing program is working,” Raimondo said. “They should know that we live in a world now where almost every good job requires something past high school, whether it's a degree, a credential, an apprenticeship. So, we need to make that a reality for most Rhode Islanders.”
Hughes said that the graduating class for 2019, who will graduate on May 16 at the Dunk in Providence, is the largest graduating class in CCRI’s history, but did not present that total. She emphasized that staying the course with Rhode Island Promise would generate results that demonstrate its value, and made a bold prediction for the college’s graduation rate.
“Let's stick with this. It is working,” Hughes said. “I predict we will see, with this year's graduating class, a two-year graduation rate that will have at least tripled what we did before the launch. I would challenge anybody to find a community college that has even come close to meeting that in a two-year time horizon. That, most certainly, hard as we're working and as talented as our students are, you don't get that without a promise program like this.”
The students gathered for the event certainly believed in the program as well. Andres Escobar is a Providence resident and first-generation American, as his parents immigrated from El Salvador in the 90s. He is also the first in his family to attend college, and he isn’t taking that opportunity for granted. He came to CCRI with 30 AP credits, and is graduating with a 4.0 in May after just one year. He looks to attend Boston College, Northeastern University or Brown and eyes going into the foreign relations field.
But it was only because of the Promise program that he has the chance to attend those institutions, he said.
“We had to make ends meet trying to pay bills. Money was super scarce all the time,” Escobar said of his family. “Even though they really wanted me to go to college I was like, 'How am I going to do this if we can't afford it? What should I do?'”
That story was similar for the other students, like Olivia Nugent, a South Kingstown High School graduate who fell into the awkward space between being too affluent to receive money from the Pell Grants, but not affluent enough to be able to pay for high tuition costs at traditional four-year universities.
“I didn't consider [college] an option, until I saw the Promise,” she said.
Anita-Marie Mott’s parents live on a fixed income, so traditional college was out of the question, but Promise has enabled her to pursue her dream of becoming a veterinarian once she transfers to the University of Rhode Island following her CCRI graduation. Similarly, Coventry High School graduate Andrew Lee is the son of a single mother with limited resources. An aspiring employee of the finance field, the Promise program just made sense for him.
“I'm glad I made a decision that benefits my family,” Lee said.
All of the students gathered, save for one who is looking for work, currently have one or more than one job and are exceeding the academic expectations set by Promise. Raimondo took a moment to praise them for their dedication.
“Don't underestimate how awesome you are. You're articulate, you're keeping it all together, you're getting As, you're working hard, you're keeping a job down, you have a plan, you're doing your finances. Stay on that path,” she said. “Because you are destined to do great things.”
Chairman Conley was also impressed.
“The best evidence of how the Promise Program is doing is this conversation with you today,” he said. We listen in order to learn. Hearing your personal stories are part of almost a real-time performance measure. Because we do want to know what we're accomplishing and if the goals we set are being achieved...Looking at all of you, it seems like we're in a pretty good place.”
Asked how the legislature would decide on whether or not to fund the expansion, Conley said the finance committee would weigh the measure with informed insight from their colleagues on the education committee. A hearing took place on Wednesday night following the Beacon’s press deadline.
“The expansion touches on a number of things,” Conley said. “We want to make sure we have the opportunity to see those performance measures as well and how it's going to be assessed. And naturally, we want to be able to afford it.”
For Raimondo, the question of affording it was simple.
“I would say not only can we afford it, we can't afford not to do it,” she said. “Every economy in America that is growing – look at every economy, city or state, that is fast growing, what do they all have in common? A highly skilled workforce. I want Rhode Island to be in that flow.”