Rhode Island one step closer to permanent free college

Dive Brief:

  • Rhode Island lawmakers approved legislation this week that would cement into law the state’s free college program. It now heads to the governor’s desk for his signature.

  • The Rhode Island Promise provides up to two years of free tuition for certain Community College of Rhode Island students. It was set to expire for the class entering this September, but a newly passed pair of bills would make it permanent.

  • The program currently costs $7 million a year. Conversations around making college more affordable have ramped up in light of the pandemic’s financial impact on students.

Dive Insight:

Former Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat who left to work in the Biden administration, proposed the program in 2017 as a way to improve college access. Students must enroll full time, qualify for in-state tuition and maintain at least a 2.5 GPA to get free tuition.

The program was initially due to wind down for the class entering the community college in 2020, but state lawmakers extended it for a year. The new legislation, which passed in the state’s House and Senate, enshrines it into law.

The office of Gov. Daniel McKee, a Democrat, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday as to whether he would sign the measure.

Similar to many states’ free tuition initiatives, including in Tennessee, the Rhode Island Promise is last-dollar, which means it covers the remaining tuition cost after all other aid, such as the federal Pell Grant is applied. There are at least 31 statewide programs, according to advocacy group College Promise.

One postsecondary finance expert told Higher Ed Dive in February that it’s unusual for states to put such a financial obligation into law, as it can be restrictive during periods of economic contraction. 

Discussions around tuition-free college have intensified during the pandemic, but the cost of implementing such programs are a major point of contention among lawmakers. President Joe Biden followed up on a campaign pledge last month by asking Congress to set aside $109 billion to make up to two years of community college free, including for unauthorized immigrant students. It has been panned by Republicans. 

On the campaign trail, Biden also proposed making four-year public schools tuition-free for families earning less than $125,000

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