POLITICS
08/04/2017 06:03 pm ET

Free College Makes Inroads In Rhode Island

The state joins a handful of others offering the benefit -- but there are strings.

Starting this fall, students in Rhode Island will have the opportunity to attend community college tuition-free.

The state legislature on Thursday approved the RI Promise Scholarship, a four-year pilot program that will pay tuition and fees for students attending the Community College of Rhode Island, the state’s only community college, regardless of their income.

Rhode Island the latest state offering free tuition for residents to attend community college ― a significant benefit as the cost of a college education continues to riseTennessee passed a free community college tuition program for recent high school graduates in 2015, and will expand it to include all adults next year. Oregon, New York and Nevada have begun similar programs.

Rhode Island budgeted $2.8 million for the first year of the free-tuition program. The benefit originally was part of a 2015 proposal by Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) to provide two years of free college education to students at all of the state’s public colleges. The idea was for community college students to pay no tuition for a two-year associate’s degree, while state residents at Rhode Island College and the University of Rhode Island would pay no tuition for their junior and senior years.

But Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello called the full plan “unsustainable and fiscally irresponsible.” Democratic lawmakers in June significantly slimmed down Raimondo’s proposal to the legislation the governor signed on Thursday, which applies only to community college students.

Community College of Rhode Island’s in-state general tuition fee for the fall semester is $2,074. The Promise Scholarship will cover this, as well as the $208 annual fee, after students use any need-based grants they receive. The college estimates 1,200 to 1,300 students will receive the scholarship in the fall.

Students are eligible to receive the scholarship if they graduated from a Rhode Island high school or completed the GED the semester before. They also must enroll in the college full time, maintain a GPA of at least 2.5, earn 30 credits each year, and enroll each semester for two years.

Approximately 70 percent of the school’s students are part time, according to the school’s website. Alix Ogden, the college president’s chief of staff, told the Providence Journal in June that she hopes the scholarship will persuade more part-time students to enroll full time.

Scholarship recipients must also agree to live and work in Rhode Island for the same length of time they receive the scholarship, meaning a student using the scholarship for a two-year associate’s degree must then spend two years living and working in the state. There’s no penalty for violating the condition.

In a video posted on her Twitter account, Raimondo explained why she advocated for the plan: “Because I want you to get a good job here in Rhode Island.”

The Promise Scholarship is expected to expand enrollment at the community college.

Rhode Island College President Frank Sanchez told the Providence Journal in June he was concerned the program would take enrollment from his four-year school.

“We don’t know what the impact will be,” Sanchez said. “We do know that with similar programs such as Tennessee’s, they saw a decline in enrollments at the four-year public institutions.”

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