RIC eyeing free-tuition expansion

The proposed expansion of Rhode Island Promise is already generating excitement at Rhode Island College, which could benefit significantly if the state provides free tuition for the final two years of a bachelor’s degree.

Gov. Gina M. Raimondo recently made the campaign promise to push to expand the Community College of Rhode Island free-tuition program to include the last two years of a bachelor’s degree at either RIC or University of Rhode Island.

At CCRI – where its introduction last year resulted in a 43 percent increase in first-time, full-time students – the expanded promise would also open the scholarship to part-time students who carry at least six credits.

Part-timers now make up the vast majority of CCRI enrollment.

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The cost of the proposed expansion could be $35 million annually, according to a spokeswoman for Raimondo. It faces several hurdles. Even if re-elected, Raimondo would have to gain General Assembly support.

URI and CCRI representatives could not be immediately reached for comment. But at RIC, President Frank D. Sánchez described the Rhode Island Promise expansion as a potentially alluring incentive for students.

“Look at the graduation rates,” he said. Students leave institutions for a variety of reasons, but costs accumulate as they progress through programs.

“Often, [it is] because of the expense,” Sánchez said. “After the second or third year, it becomes more difficult to make ends meet. The Rhode Island Promise … would be a great incentive for that freshman and sophomore. If I work hard, if I can get through my sophomore year, I can then get help from the state for my junior and senior year.”

A program expansion could also potentially reverse an enrollment decline. This year, the undergraduate population dropped 4 percent to 7,080, according to a RIC spokeswoman.

Whether the 318 fewer students bypassed RIC for the community college is not known. But Sánchez is already working on methods to recapture them.

And retaining students at RIC is an investment in the state’s economy, he said, because 70 percent of its graduates remain in state. “They raise families. They contribute to the economic base. No other four-year institution can boast those types of numbers.”

Sánchez, who was appointed two years ago, is already trying to standardize a “two-plus-two” acceptance process, through which graduates of CCRI could seamlessly enter a bachelor’s degree program at RIC. As president, he said he has learned that many students have faced challenges in getting all credits accepted when they transfer in as juniors.

He wants to remove those obstacles. The 12 programs that would be applicable include virtually all business degrees, including accounting and information-management systems.

“We’re going to be targeting those students who complete their associate degrees,” Sánchez said. “They are already college-ready.”