‘Free college’ to grow enrollment

One of the more challenging aspects of planning for the impact of free college tuition, under the Rhode Island Promise initiative now before the General Assembly, is trying to pin down how it will increase enrollments at the state’s public colleges.

How many students will choose to enroll, for the first time, lured by the expectation of two years of free tuition? How many students will stay in-state, rather than attend out-of-state institutions? Will the enrollments supplant out-of-state applicants at the four-year institutions? Will the requirement for a recipient to attend full time create more full-time students?

No other state has created a program quite like the one suggested for Rhode Island, say university and college presidents, who nevertheless all believe it will increase enrollments.

Gov. Gina M. Raimondo’s proposal would require students to maintain a 2.0 grade point average. They must be full time. And they would have to enter college immediately after high school. At the four-year institutions, it’s organized to cover the last two years.

- Advertisement -

University of Rhode Island President David M. Dooley anticipates it could increase the percentage of in-state students by as much as 20 percent.

Meghan Hughes, president of the Community College of Rhode Island, says the proposal would not likely dramatically change the student population. She noted that 70 percent of CCRI students are part time, and it’s unrealistic to expect free tuition to convert a significant portion of them to full-time students. Many have families and/or are working.

And yet, of the cohort at CCRI that attends full time, she anticipates a 25 percent increase in attendance. And awareness of the realistic option of a college degree will rise.

“The biggest jump we expect to see is actually just an increased awareness of what already exists through federal financial aid,” Hughes said.

Rhode Island College President Frank Sanchez, whose institution also includes many first-generation students, said the impact could be dramatic. Right now, more than 40 percent of the students at RIC are recipients of Pell Grants, awarded to students based on financial need.

Take the cost of that degree, and cut it in half, and Rhode Island College will appeal to more students in Rhode Island, Sanchez said.

“If this proposal goes through, Rhode Island College will have one of the most affordable college degrees in the nation,” he said.

But a percentage increase is hard to estimate, Sanchez said.

“We could attract a number of students who might have thought they could only afford a community college education,” he said. “And then you have a pool of students who hadn’t thought about going to college before … suddenly the affordability and the value come into focus.” •