When it comes to cutting the car tax and sending students to college with two years of free tuition, Governor Gina Raimondo’s Deputy Chief of Staff Kevin Gallagher thinks Rhode Island can walk and …
When it comes to cutting the car tax and sending students to college with two years of free tuition, Governor Gina Raimondo’s Deputy Chief of Staff Kevin Gallagher thinks Rhode Island can walk and chew gum at the same time.
“We totally do not believe that this is an either or... The budget she proposed is a balanced budget,” he said. “It has a five-year outlook that bakes in both car tax relief and her college tuition proposal.”
These sentiments come two weeks after Speaker Nicholas Mattiello criticized Raimondo on Twitter, calling her “tone deaf” on the issue of the car tax and her Rhode Island’s Promise free tuition plan “unsustainable and fiscally irresponsible.” The two have notably different ideas on the car tax, with the speaker insisting upon completely phasing out the tax over the course of five years and the governor proposing a 30 percent cut.
Before Mattiello’s Twitter statement, Raimondo’s staff had been visiting local news outlets to share presentations on her car tax plans, saying that they have not seen a plan from Mattiello, giving reasons as to why his proposal to gut the tax is “unsustainable,” but also continuously noting that the governor is willing to compromise and “work with anyone” on ways to offer relief.
The Raimondo camp has embarked on a “road show” to promote Rhode Island’s Promise. They visited the Beacon offices Friday to discuss details of the proposal.
Students must qualify for in-state tuition, be enrolled full time and graduate on time to receive the scholarship. In addition, students who go to college immediately after completing high school are three times more likely to graduate, Gallagher said, so students must enroll to start college in the fall of their high school graduation year (unless medical, military, or other uncontrollable situations makes it impossible to go immediately).
A reason for pushing the proposal, Gallagher said, is the gap between jobs that will require credentials past a high school degree and the number of Rhode Islanders who actually have those credentials.
“More than 70 percent of the jobs in Rhode Island are going to require a degree or credential beyond high school,” Gallagher said. “Right now, less than 45 percent of working-age adults actually have a degree or credential beyond high school.”
Gallagher also said 90 percent of high school seniors want to go to college, but only 65 percent do, partially due to affordability.
Rhode Island’s Promise also seeks to remedy the limits of other forms of aid students can receive, one of which being Pell Grants. Though he said he is proud to come from the state of Senator Claiborne Pell, Gallagher said the grants that bear Pell’s name don’t service students whose families make more than $50,000 a year. Furthermore, he said 84 percent of students who receive Pell grants still apply for loans, indicating needs are still going unmet.
As one of the requirements for receiving the Rhode Island’s Promise scholarship is graduating on time, Gallagher said the three schools are working with the Governor’s office on initiatives that will help more students be on track to on-time completion of their degrees. Class scheduling seems to be a significant barrier; Before President Meghan Hughes came to CCRI, the school had no master schedule, Gallagher said. This year is the first in which the school has a master schedule, which will help provide students better access to the classes they need to complete their degree on time, he added.
At URI, Gallagher said President David Dooley has a strategic plan to grow the school and add 50 faculty in the next four years. At RIC, President Frank Sanchez sees a need for more academic advisors that can assist students in mapping out their educational paths, Gallagher added.
Cost has been a major talking point for Rhode Island’s Promise. At the Make it in Rhode Island Summit, the governor told the audience to not be convinced by critics who say the state cannot afford the proposal, calling it a “drop in the bucket” of her $9.2 billion budget. She and her team have stated many times that it can be paid for on account of “tough decisions” her administration has made, including pension reform and reinventing Medicaid. In addition, Raimondo has cited new sales taxes from Amazon purchases as a source of funding for the proposal.
Gallagher was consistent with Raimondo’s message of affordability. The plan would cost $10 million in fiscal year 2018, $13 million in fiscal year 2019, $18 million in fiscal year 2020, and $30 million annually starting in fiscal year 2021. To ensure there would be enough funds budgeted, Gallagher said governor’s office projected an immediate 25 percent increase in enrollment at all three schools. Those projections were in part inspired by talks with officials involved with Tennessee Promise, which allows high school graduates to attend community college for free. Tennessee wished they had spent money upfront to promote the program, Gallagher said, so that’s what Raimondo’s office did when constructing Rhode Island’s Promise. The plan calls for $1 million to promote the program.
“We wanted to have the money to be able to look at every kid in the eye and say ‘there is a seat with your name on it at one of our three public colleges,’” he said.
In addition, the Rhode Island Promise model assumes no attrition. Gallagher also does not believe this will be the case, as a 100 percent on-time completion rate “doesn’t happen anywhere.” However, it was another way Gallagher said was helpful in ensuring they’d have the money. Under this model, Raimondo’s office doesn’t anticipate needing more than the costs already outlined in her budget.
A requirement for receiving Rhode Island’s Promise scholarship is filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Though the scholarship will not impact federal aid students receive, and though the schools will provide financial aid the same way they always have, students still must complete the FAFSA as it will determine what other types of aid they can get, Gallagher said. He doesn’t want any students to leave any “federal dollars on the table.”
Why not means restricted?
Another question Gallagher often hears is why Rhode Island’s Promise is available for all students regardless of family income - to that, he responded that means testing leaves out too many middle class families.
“[New York] Governor Andrew Cuomo has a proposal where if your family earns less than $100,000, you qualify for scholarships,” he said. “The problem is in a single parent household with one kid who’s making $99,000 a year, that kid gets the scholarship. But in a family of six who’s making [$1,000] more than that, none of those kids get the scholarship. It felt like it was a very arbitrary cutoff.”
The governor’s office wanted a plan without “winners or losers” and that would not exclude the middle class, so providing the scholarship for everyone was the way to go.
Gallagher is aware that some may believe students will be more successful long term if they work to pay for their tuition rather than it being a given. However, he notes that 25 percent of undergraduate students still work full time, plus have other living expenses besides tuition and fees.
“To suggest that students who presently have the opportunity to go to college for free through scholarships or other things somehow don’t work as hard as other students… devalues how hard our students are working to try to make it. We’re just trying to make it a little bit easier,” he said.
In his answers to final questions, Gallagher laughed at the prospect of Raimondo putting forth the proposal for political gain or to appeal to any particular segment of voters. Free community college and debt free college have become parts of the Democratic Party platform, he said, and Raimondo is simply making it a part of her own.
“This is a Democratic governor making good on a commitment that the Democratic Party has said is one of the pillars of their platform,” he said. “I think people have realized this is a good idea and I don’t think you have to be a Democrat or Republican to see why.”