Rhode Island’s Fresh New Outlook: Free College

Recent studies and current mentality shifts show that a high school education is no longer sufficient to prepare Americans for jobs in the 21st century. The Georgetown Public Policy Institute’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that as soon as 2020, more than 70% of the jobs currently available in Rhode Island will require some credential beyond a high school diploma. Only 45% of the state’s current population meets that mark.

Education has shifted from being a valuable building block to a necessity. There have been calls for free college, but many of these initiatives fall short of expectations. Take New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recently proposed “free college” proposal: Due to its stringent requirements, which called for students to complete an almost unreasonable 120 credit hours in four years, some New York politicians went so far as to call the program a sham. It does not allow flexibility for students who have jobs, or accidentally take the wrong course, or change their intended major.

Following the national trend, Governor Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island recently proposed an education reform plan called “Rhode Island’s Promise,” which provides two years of free college within the three public universities in the state. In her State of the State address, she announced, “Our promise needs to change if the people of Rhode Island are going to have a real shot in the economy of the future. Because the hardest part of college shouldn’t be paying for it. Giving Rhode Islanders access to a college education for half of what it would normally cost, and thereby creating the opportunity for them to advance economically is fantastic. The beauty of her plan is its simplicity: The program merely requires potential applicants to apply through FAFSA and ensure that they are from Rhode Island. Students need not provide their high school GPA or family income. Raimondo’s administration has attempted to eliminate obstacles that keep families from pushing their children forward.

Under “Rhode Island’s Promise,” students at the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI), would receive payments for the first two years of their college degrees unconditionally. By contrast, at University of Rhode Island (URI) and Rhode Island College (RIC) students would have to maintain a 2.0 GPA and show that they are on track to graduate on time during their first two years. If they demonstrate this, the state picks up the tab for the final two years of their degree. The plan does not include the costs of room and board. The program is structured this way to minimize costs upfront until the program is fully phased in over four years to plan for the expected annual cost of $30 million. As Governor Raimondo stated, “we have the money,” so it makes sense to do this.

It is worthwhile to note that plenty of people claim that having an overabundant supply of college-educated workers may not be the best plan for the United States. After all, pursuing higher education is not without its mounting risks. The 40% of college students who do graduate take on huge financial burdens, and nearly two-thirds of students take longer than the conventional four-year term to graduate, which means more years spent without the dividends that a degree confers. Then, too, the United States faces a massive student debt crisis; it is not hard to see why people search for other options.

Teachers, families, and those in positions of authority tell American children that a college education provides the surest ticket to the middle class. However, much of that claim depends on the degree chosen, rather than solely finishing college. For example, engineering degrees in most circumstances will leave you better off financially than most degrees in the arts or humanities. Too many degrees today do not give a return on investment and lead kids into substantial amounts of debt and a tough job market following their graduation. Making college cheaper and more accessible is one way to increase students’ return on investment when they choose to invest in themselves.

Creating this program is logical and the smart move for Rhode Island. By offering two free years of schooling, the state has substantially cut the price of a college education for bachelor’s degrees. The new program provides students an incentive to pursue higher education, it affords them a greater return on investment, and it gives access to more jobs compared to just having a high school diploma. It will also be a significant factor in helping Rhode Islanders control their student debt — a much-needed relief given that this past year, Rhode Island had the second-highest average student loan debt of any state.

Making college cheaper and more accessible is one way to increase students’ return on investment when they choose to invest in themselves.

This move not only benefits the state by creating a larger number of educated local citizens, but it also drives more students to choose Rhode Island schools. It may also draw in businesses considering possible transitions to Rhode Island in the future, one of the Governor’s primary policy objectives. The governor insists that by educating the state’s students, Rhode Island’s workforce will be better suited for the future. 

Governor Raimondo led a disciplined campaign to sell her education platform and capture bipartisanship support. She laid the foundation for this proposal by implementing programs like CS4RI (Computer Science for Rhode Island), which requires students, from kindergarten to senior year of high school, to take computer science classes. She has also instituted various workforce partnership programs like Real Jobs For Rhode Island at state colleges. These foundational programs will not only be beneficial to students, but they may also funnel young children into computer science degrees, which are extremely competitive in today’s job market.

RIDE surveys, which study high school seniors throughout the state every year, show that 90% of seniors want to go to college while only 65% ever do. However, the only barriers are not just college accessibility and cost; students have to make sure that they stay on track to complete their degrees on time. The governor’s current proposal takes all of these issues into account. As long as students maintain a 2.0 GPA and show that they’ve adhered to their studies, they will have a significant financial burden lifted from their shoulders. This fiscal relief allows them to focus on their lives after college instead of worrying about how they are going to pay off student loans, thus fulfilling the promise to eliminate cost as a factor to going to college. A well-educated, less indebted workforce will confer real benefits to the state of Rhode Island as well.

It is important to note that not everyone must go to college to have a successful future. There are plenty of stories of individuals who do well without it, but people should have the opportunity to choose whether or not they want to pursue college regardless of financial barriers. This opportunity is what Governor Raimondo and those who helped bring this plan to fruition gave to the people of Rhode Island — a chance.