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2017 July 21 - 08:18 am

RI Approves Watered-Down Free Tuition Plan

Law Will Help Fewer Students Than Governor Hoped

CUMBERLAND, R.I. (AP) — A tuition-free college proposal that attracted national attention to Gov. Gina Raimondo and raised the hopes of college-bound high school seniors has survived, but will help fewer students after it was gutted by fellow Democrats in the state legislature.

The first-term governor still counts the scaled-back pilot as a success, saying a compromise was needed to close an unexpected shortfall in the state budget.

Raimondo said the tuition-free community college program will be only the fourth of its kind in the country.

“You got to start somewhere,” she told WPRO-AM radio. “This is a huge deal.”

But, as she eyes re-election in 2018 and is seen by some Democrats as a national leader who can help reshape the party’s message, the partial victory raised questions about her ability to deliver on a signature proposal she spent months promoting.

The $2.8 million free tuition program for in-state students at the Community College of Rhode Island was included in a $9.2 billion budget passed by the Democratic-controlled state House of Representatives.

Raimondo’s original plan would have cost millions more and covered students in their last two years at the state’s four-year public colleges: the University of Rhode Island or Rhode Island College.

The scrapping of the more comprehensive plan “let people like me down,” said 18-year-old Oluwatona Campbell, a recent graduate and class president of Cumberland High School who starts at the University of Rhode Island in the fall.

Raimondo gave a pep talk at Cumberland’s high school for its “College Signing Day” celebration last month, and has received a rousing reception this year at school assemblies around the state. Her free tuition plan was announced in January, at the same time as a similar proposal was introduced — and later signed into law — by New York’s Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and after the college-for-all idea had been popularized in the Democratic presidential primary by Vermont’s U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.

But local politicians balked, especially Rhode Island Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who called it “unsustainable and fiscally irresponsible.” In the end, he agreed to the more modest pilot that also includes more stringent eligibility requirements, including a promise by beneficiaries to live and work in Rhode Island after graduation — a tall order in the nation’s smallest state, which just recently pulled out of years of high unemployment.

Campbell, an aspiring political science major who follows state politics more than his peers, said he blames Rhode Island legislators more than the governor for the scaled-back plan, but “I’m not sure other people would be as forgiving.”

“A lot of people applied and enrolled in URI or RIC under the assumption that this would become law soon,” he said.

The Republican Governors Association gloated at the watered-down plan and described it as a “rebuke.”

“Even with national Democrat groups backing her agenda with campaign ads, Gina Raimondo simply can’t get her plans through,” the GOP group said in a blog post. “Raimondo oversold and under-delivered on her signature legislative proposal and in the end, got only a fraction of what she proposed from a legislature dominated by her own party.”

But a Rhode Island-based political observer said the community college pilot can only help Raimondo in the long run.

“Something is always better than nothing when you’re a politician,” said Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University. “The governor can point to incremental progress.”

The appeal to high school graduates looking to get an associate’s degree is “paying attention to a group of voters who feel like they’ve been ignored by the Democratic Party,” Schiller said. “She can also claim she’s someone who can compromise. She’s willing to broker a deal.”

Raimondo said she hasn’t given up on a more expansive plan.

“I just want to be able to look in the eyes of these kids and say, “It’s OK if you don’t have a lot of money. Work hard. There’s a spot for you there. You’re going to get a good job.’ That’s what this whole thing was about,” she told the radio station. “If revenues are better next year, or the next year, we’ll expand it.

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