State officials not concerned about funding for free tuition plan

RI State House_318269

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The $9.3-billion budget introduced by Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo Thursday sets aside $10 million to begin funding her proposal to offer new high school graduates two years of free tuition at the state’s three public colleges.

But the cost of the Rhode Island’s Promise scholarship program is expected to grow to $30 million by the 2020-21 fiscal year, once the state is covering the cost of tuition and mandatory fees for juniors and seniors at the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College as well as associate degrees at the Community College of Rhode Island.

So how is the state going to afford a program that is projected to provide scholarships to more than 7,000 Rhode Island students by 2021?

A combination of rising annual revenues across state government as well as a shift in priorities, according to state officials.

Kevin Gallagher, Raimondo’s deputy chief of staff and a key architect of the program, noted that the $10 million included in the budget to pay for scholarships in the fall is less than one one-hundredth of one percent of the governor’s proposed tax-and-spending plan. He said there is no plan to propose a tax to pay for the program, suggesting an improving economy is projected to keep revenue on the rise in the coming years.

When it comes to the $30 million needed by 2021, officials say they aren’t concerned. State budget officer Tom Mullaney said Thursday the exponential annual growth in Rhode Island’s education funding formula for local school districts over the past seven years is projected to end in 2018. While education aid is still expected to increase in the coming years, it won’t grow at the same pace – leaving an opening to fund the scholarship program.

“We’re basically proposing that that shift take place for higher education,” Mullaney said.

It will still take some budget maneuvering to pay for the program in the coming years, as the state is facing budget deficits that are expected to grow from $151 million in 2019 to $194 million in 2022.

The $10 million set aside for the first year of the program projects that $2.8 million will go toward approximately 1,461 scholarships for students attending CCRI – scholarships for the four-year schools won’t begin until the current class of high school seniors are juniors in college – with the rest of the money going toward preparation programs at the three colleges and outreach to promote the scholarship.

URI President David Dooley said the university is already beginning preparation for a projected 25% increase in enrollment, which includes providing more support to students, ensuring that courses will remain available as the student population grows and initiating a project to build more student housing.

Dooley called the scholarship program a “critical step” for the state.

“If Rhode Island wants to have a better future, you can’t just continue to do the things you’ve always,” done,” he said.

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Dan McGowan ( ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan 

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