Legislative leaders hesitant on Raimondo’s free tuition expansion

Legislative leaders hesitant on free tuition expansion

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Gina Raimondo urged lawmakers to fund her proposed expansion of the state’s free college tuition program, even as state revenues are down from forecasts and the budget-writing committees grapple with expected budget deficits in the coming years.

Raimondo testified before the Senate Finance and Education Committees Wednesday night, arguing the proposed $5.3 million in additional dollars for the RI Promise scholarship program in the next fiscal year is a “drop in the bucket” in the nearly $10 billion budget.

The RI Promise scholarship currently only applies to high school graduates entering the Community College of Rhode Island and requires the students be on track to get an Associate’s degree in two years and maintain a 2.5 GPA in order to qualify for free tuition. The program is a “last-dollar” scholarship that requires all other sources of financial aid to be exhausted.

Raimondo’s proposal would expand the program to the junior and senior years of students at Rhode Island College, and to adult learners over 25 at CCRI. The total proposed cost of the existing program plus the expansion is $13.2 million in the budget year that begins July 1.

“If the expansion is as successful as the initial Promise program, then I have a high degree of confidence that in the context of a $10 billion budget, that we can find 4 to 5 million dollars,” Raimondo said.

The RI Promise scholarship began at CCRI in fall 2017. CCRI reports a 113% increase in enrollment from 2016 to 2018. The retention rate of students from 2017 to the 2018 school year was 62%.

Sara Enright, Vice President of Student Affairs at CCRI, also said there’s been a bump in enrollment of low-income students and students of color.

RIC President Frank Sanchez is also pushing for the expansion, pointing out at the hearing that students will have to make a significant commitment before getting the scholarship by paying for the first two years of college, maintaining the 2.5 GPA and earning 60 credit hours before junior year.

There are growing doubts that the proposed expansion will pass this year after leaders of both the House and Senate chambers said they are hesitant to enact new or expanded funding during a difficult budget year.

“Early data is pointing to a significant budget shortfall, and difficult choices need to be made in the weeks ahead,” said Senate spokesperson Greg Pare. “The Senate President has indicated that the first place he will look when working to address a funding gap is new programs and the expansion of existing programs.”

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello had a similar outlook in an interview with Eyewitness News on Wednesday.

“New programming is going to be extraordinarily difficult,” Mattiello said. “We have to see if financially we have the resources to get this done, and I’m concerned that we may not.” 

Raimondo said the proposal would cost a relatively small amount in the budget.

“For that much money, we can change lives and strengthen our economy,” Raimondo said.

Mattiello said he has dozens of people all asking for relatively small amounts of money that add up.

“It is a lot,” Mattiello said. “There are a lot of other good programs asking for the same amount of money.”

Matiello also said he expects the Promise program to cost more each year, if it encourages more students to enroll at RIC. He did say he supports funding the existing RI Promise program at CCRI in the upcoming budget, and through the rest of its 4-year pilot program.

“The program as it exists is a success,” said Senate Finance Chairman Bill Conley. “Whether expansion and how it is structured is warranted right now, and the money available for it, are all questions that will need to be answered through the hearing process.”

The budget picture will be clearer after the May revenue estimating conference, but the Department of Revenue already revealed last month that receipts for this fiscal year are running $33 million below forecast.

“I hope… that we’re 100% wrong,” Mattiello said. “And that the resources are there and we can do a lot more than I’m anticipating we’ll be able to do. That would be a great thing.”

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