When I talk with my friends about the RI Promise Scholarship, which recently passed in a much-truncated form, I tell them that tuition-free college means what it says: two years of college for free. I tell them that if you want to earn an associate’s degree in, say, radiography, nursing, or paralegal studies, you can now do that – even if previously you weren’t eligible for full or partial federal funding. I also tell them that if they want to earn a four-year degree, now, the first two years of that degree will be free. The grant cuts the costs of a four-year degree from RIC or URI in half.
Great news, right? Kind of.
For students like me, who are eligible for the full Pell Grant (federal funding for college students), community college is already free. That means the RI Promise Scholarship does not change anything for folks like me. But in its original form, it would have covered the gap between federal funding and the tuition at RIC or URI. This meant being able to earn my bachelor’s without accruing too much debt. To me, that was an exciting and thrilling promise. Now that promise– which was included in the original proposal– has fizzled out.
I am a CCRI student, and I plan to transfer to RIC to earn my bachelor’s in finance with a minor in physics. Though I am on track to graduate from RIC three years from now, I already have enough college loan debt to keep me up some nights. After high school, I went to CCRI, and then within a year decided to transfer to URI. I was there for only a semester before becoming incredibly sick. Unfortunately, as my physical condition dwindled so did my grades and my motivation. I withdrew from all my classes. As a result, by the end of my first semester at URI, I had racked up $6,000 in college loan debt. I eventually made my way back to CCRI and while I’m doing better physically – and academically – I have a huge balance hanging over my head. It makes getting my bachelor’s degree seem further out of reach.
I realize that to many reading this, six grand is not a lot of money. But allow me to put this in perspective for you. There are three of us in my family. Together *all* of us bring in less than $15,000 a year. A debt of $6,000 is nearly half of my family’s income. And I still don’t have a college degree that would enable me to earn the kind of income that makes paying off my loan feasible.
My situation is not unfamiliar to *many* Rhode Islanders. As of 2016, 13.9 percent of Rhode Island’s population who live at or below the poverty line, defined as earning $24,300 for a family four, or $20,160 for a family of three, like mine. So, a substantial percentage of Rhode Island’s population would have significant difficulty paying off a debt of $6,000. College affordability is waning and will continue to do so unless we change the way we approach higher education. We need real solutions to families who can and want to earn a two-year AND/OR a four-year degree.
The initial proposal was bold and inclusive. The appeal of two years of free college is obvious, but it also promised to make a four-year degree more affordable. That, however, is no longer on the table. And why not? Right now, Rhode Islanders who are not eligible for the full federal Pell Grant can use the state grant to pay for tuition and fees for a two year associate’s degree or a certificate at CCRI. So, great news for folks making above the poverty line but not great news for the 70 percent of CCRI students who already meet the eligibility requirements for the federal Pell Grant. The recently passed budget will effectively cover the costs for the remaining 30 percent of CCRI students who are not eligible for the Pell Grant. The legislature did not change the situation for the other 70 percent of lower-income students who aspire to earn a four-year degree.
The legislature has decided to focus on a fraction of the middle class. If the legislature wanted broader support for tuition-free college, they should have passed the budget as the governor’s office had originally proposed it. I understand that in offering free college at CCRI to folks who are not eligible for the full (or partial) Pell Grant helps those who are hurting the most. Because some students have to pay for two years at CCRI out of pocket, the RI Promise Grant means that they can graduate from CCRI without debt. But again this plan helps only those Rhode Islanders who want to attend a two-year college.
The budget helps a sliver of RI’s population teetering on the edge of the middle/working poor class divide– and that’s great. But in a state with so many colleges and so much need to increase the number of college grads, why pass a budget that does the least for the fewest?
Despite these criticisms, increasing public funding of higher education is an important issue. We have got to start somewhere. We should be looking to further expand this program so that more Rhode Islanders can be prepared for the workforce of the future. By 2020, 70 percent of all jobs in Rhode Island will require some kind of post-secondary degree. Not only that, other countries have already beaten us to the punch. Germany, France, Norway, Sweden and other countries already offer nearly free higher education.
We need to invest in human capital if we want to catch up with the rest of the developed world. The governor’s proposal is a step in the right direction, albeit not as big as it was first envisioned. Nevertheless, it is a foundation on which further progress can be supported. It behooves all of us to continue the fight for a free college education.