Raimondo: Cost of expanded tuition-free R.I. Promise program ‘a drop in the bucket’

PROVIDENCE – Gov. Gina M. Raimondo told lawmakers Wednesday that her proposed $5.3 million expansion of the tuition-free program Rhode Island Promise is crucial to the state’s economic future.

The scholarship program now allows high school graduates to attend the Community College of Rhode Island at no cost for two years and Raimondo wants to expand it to Rhode Island College, where Rhode Island Promise would cover tuition for eligible juniors and seniors.

Her proposal would also allow adults over 24 to be eligible for the program at CCRI. The total cost for the expanded Rhode Island Promise would be $13.2 million.

“If we want businesses to choose Rhode Island and add jobs in Rhode Island, we need a trained workforce, period,” Raimondo testified during a joint session of the Education and Finance committee on Wednesday. “This is about jobs and the economy and positioning Rhode Island’s economy for growth and sustained success in the long run.”

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The cost is “a drop in the bucket in the context of a big budget,” Raimondo said. “We’ll have to make choices. I think it’s a good investment.”

But legislative leaders have balked at the additional $5.3 million cost for the governor’s expansion plans, citing projected state budget shortfalls in the coming years.

“We have very limited resources and adding any new programs is going to be very difficult to do this year,” House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello said through a spokesman on Thursday morning.

Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio echoed those financial concerns.

“Difficult choices may need to be made in the weeks ahead,” Ruggerio spokesman Greg Pare said Thursday. “The Senate president has indicated that the first place he will look when working to address a funding gap is to new programs and the expansion of existing programs.”

Still, Raimondo – flanked by CCRI President Meghan Hughes and RIC President Frank Sanchez – pressed her case before the Senate committees on Wednesday, noting that this would be the only legislation for which she’d be personally testifying this session.

The governor cited companies such as Electric Boat in North Kingstown, which is planning to add thousands of jobs in the coming years. “They are absolutely doing that because of what we’re doing at CCRI,” she said.

Since Rhode Island Promise started at CCRI in 2017, the college has seen enrollment of Rhode Island full-time students coming out of high school increase 113%, while enrollment of low-income students has risen 143%, and enrollment of students of color is up 164%.

Traditionally, the two-year graduation rate at CCRI has been as low as 4%. But Sara Enright, CCRI vice president of student affairs, said that since Rhode Island Promise was implemented, more than four times as many students are on track at graduate in two years.

Raimondo said those numbers prove the success of the scholarship program. And she foresees something similar at Rhode Island College, which data show many students in good academic standing drop out following their sophomore years after savings have been exhausted.

“If the expansion is as successful as the initial Promise program, then I have a high degree of confidence in the context of a $10 billion budget, we can find four or five million dollars,” Raimondo said.

Sanchez emphasized that the RIC students would still be required to foot their tuition bill in their freshman and sophomore years and there would be under stringent requirements to be eligible for the scholarship in the final two years: 60 credit hours and at least a 2.5 grade-point average.

“It’s not free,” Sanchez told lawmakers on Wednesday, noting that the first two years of RIC tuition could total $19,000. “And you have to show you’re on the pathway to get a degree.

William Hamilton is PBN staff writer and special projects editor. You can follow him on Twitter @waham or email him at hamilton@pbn.com.