Gaining New Traction
RI, NY Join Roster of States Pushing Tuition-Free College
A free college tuition idea that sparked Democratic voter enthusiasm during the presidential race is being tested in the smallest state and in one of the largest.
In Rhode Island, Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo is pushing to make Rhode Island the first state to guarantee free access for every student who wants to go to college. The idea of expanding free public education beyond high school catapulted into the national discourse during Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Democratic presidential campaign.
In New York, meanwhile, state lawmakers are questioning the price tag of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to make college tuition free for middle class students, suggesting the true cost of the proposal could be far higher than the $163 million estimate.
The proposal has won the Democratic governor national attention and applause from education advocates, but lawmakers said during a budget hearing they won’t support it before they can gauge its cost to taxpayers.
Raimondo said free college for all is an idea whose time has come.
“As a country we have to start asking ourselves, ‘Isn’t it the right thing to do now?’” Raimondo said in an interview. “What’s the magic of 12th grade? Once upon a time, that’s what you needed to get a job. Those days are long gone and vanishing quicker every day.”
At a cost she described as a $30 million “drop in the bucket” of Rhode Island’s $9 billion budget, Raimondo’s proposal would give in-state residents two years of free tuition at public colleges. Details were released when Raimondo submitted her annual spending plan to state lawmakers. It would need approval from the legislature, which has the nation’s second-largest Democratic majority.
Republican leaders are calling it another costly entitlement. Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who has prioritized tax cuts, called it a “laudable goal” but hasn’t endorsed it. He said it will have to be vetted by a finance committee.
News of the idea quickly spread among high school students and “people are excited,” said 18-year-old Rachel Berson, a senior at the suburban North Kingstown High School, which sends many graduates to the nearby University of Rhode Island. But while cost is a consideration for Berson and her family, so is her desire to study elsewhere.
“The reason I wanted to go out of the state is just for a new perspective, new experiences, just to learn a little bit more about the world,” she said.
Raimondo’s program would cover a two-year education at the Community College of Rhode Island or the final two years of a 4-year-degree at the University of Rhode Island or Rhode Island College. It doesn’t cover room and board.
By eliminating tuition for students in their junior and senior years, Raimondo said, the aim is to create an incentive to graduate on time. It’s a proposal she said came out of conversations with university leaders and students who have had to drop out or delay their education because of financial burdens.
“It gives them an incentive that makes them want to come to the institutions, make sure they take the classes they need, perform well in those classes, and then, when for many families the financial pressures start to grow, the state is ready to step in with assistance,” said David Dooley, president of the University of Rhode Island, who projects as much as a 20 percent spike in enrollment of state residents if the program rolls out.
Raimondo said her staff spent months studying tuition-free college programs in states such as Tennessee and Georgia. Most are limited to community colleges. Georgia’s more expansive merit-based scholarships have scaled back in recent years by excluding all but the top-ranking high school graduates.
Raimondo said she wanted to avoid the “unintended consequences” of Georgia’s high GPA requirement, which “encouraged grade inflation and tended to veer folks into easier classes.”
Rhode Island’s proposal differs from one announced by Cuomo for students from families making $125,000 a year or less. Raimondo didn’t want an income cap that would exclude some middle-class families.
Raimondo budgeted $10 million for the program’s first year. Only $3 million of that would go directly to pay for students’ tuition at Community College of Rhode Island, which costs about $4,000 a year to attend. It is a “last-dollar” scholarship that supplements what is not already covered by federal Pell Grants and other financial aid. More than half of the community college’s students already attend classes for free.
Another $6 million in the first year would invest in the state’s higher education institutions to build teaching capacity and brace for a future influx. The program would later expand to $30 million annually once it includes students at Rhode Island College, where in-state tuition is about $8,000 a year, and the University of Rhode Island, which it is more than $12,000. Raimondo said a longer-term goal is halting the flight of skilled young people who find jobs and settle near the out-of-state colleges they attend.
"You will see more people consider URI and go to URI, graduate, and then stick around in Rhode Island,” she said.
In New York, Cuomo’s office has predicted the program would cost $163 million — a figure some lawmakers say seems far too low.
“All the bean counters say there’s no way,” Sen. Kenneth LaValle, R-Long Island, said of Cuomo’s estimate. “We’ve got to be able to find out whether the bean counters outside the governor’s office are wrong, or if the governor’s folks are right.”
Cuomo’s proposal would cover whatever tuition costs remain after other sources of federal and state financial aid is factored in for students from households making $125,000 or less. The program would not pay for room and board.
Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York system, acknowledged some of the financial details of Cuomo’s free tuition proposal still are being refined.
“We’ve got a team of people ... to try to estimate that,” she said.
Cuomo has said the cost of the program is extremely low compared to the billions of dollars the state spent on education overall. He said the proposal would help middleclass families struggling with the burden of rising higher education costs. Budget officials put together the cost estimate, which was somewhat based on free community college programs in other states, according to Jim Malatras, Cuomo’s director of state operations.
“We’re confident in the number,” he told The Associated Press, acknowledging that because the program would be the first of its kind in the nation, certainty is impossible. “It is a new thing ... it is an estimate.”
Advocates who testified at the hearing also questioned Cuomo’s relatively modest estimate.
“The cost is hard to reconcile with the actual numbers,” said Barbara Bowen, president of the union that represents faculty at the City University of New York.
Cuomo included the plan in a $152 billion state budget proposal. Lawmakers hope to approve a final spending plan by April 1.
New York has the nation’s largest public university system, with 440,000 students spread among 64 campuses across the state.
Other states are also considering making college free to middle class students.
In Nevada, a state senator plans to submit a bill making two years of community college free to state residents.
“One of the things we’re seeing is that, when students get to the community college, if they have a lot of expenses associated with school, they get full-time jobs and don’t focus on school,” Sen. Mo Denis, a Las Vegas Democrat, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “If we want them to graduate, we have to find ways to get them to focus on school, rather than to focus on work.”
The College Promise Campaign, which is spearheading the movement to provide free community college, said the effort is gaining momentum. About 150 College Promise programs now exist across 37 states.