Free tuition an ‘investment’ in state’s future: Gov’s office
As more jobs require college degrees, Raimondo proposes two free years; legislature to consider plan March 15
In today’s changing world, a high school diploma is not enough to secure sustainable employment into the future. At least some college education is critical, and therefore should be part of the public education the state provides, according to members of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s office touting the governor’s plan.
The question is, will the General Assembly agree to dedicate a portion of the state budget to providing the college education to in-state students. The House Finance Committee is expected to consider the proposal on March 15.
Extending students’ education beyond high school is no longer a luxury — it is a necessity in a world built on technology, according to Gov. Raimondo’s deputy chief of staff, Kevin Gallagher. Of the approximately 11 million jobs added in the country since the end of the recession in 2010, just 80,000 can be attained with only a high school diploma, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education. The governor’s office estimates 70 percent of all jobs in Rhode Island will require a college degree by the year 2020. Currently, just 45 percent of Rhode Islanders have some post-high school education.
The plan is a natural extension of the public education a government should provide its residents, Mr. Gallagher said, noting that a century ago, public education ended at grade 8. As technology increased and jobs required secondary education, high school was added as standard. The same situation exists now with post-secondary education, he said.
“For so long, we’ve been saying that a college degree is a necessity, but we haven’t done anything to make it a reality,” Mr. Gallagher said. “If we don’t fix this, we know we will have jobs, but not enough people who qualify for those jobs.”
If passed by the legislature, the governor’s plan would provide two free years of post-secondary education to all in-state students. Beginning with the class of 2017, students could choose to go to the Community College of Rhode Island, earning an associate’s degree at no cost, or they could pay their way through their first two years at Rhode Island College or the University of Rhode Island, finishing off the last two years of their bachelor’s degree for free.
To be eligible, students must have spent their last three years of high school at an approved Rhode island school; must enroll immediately in college the fall after graduation; and must remain on course, taking enough credits — and passing — to graduate college in two or four years, depending on the degree they’re seeking.
“We think this is something everyone should be able to get behind,” Mr. Gallagher said, including the legislative committee that controls the state’s purse strings.
State Rep. Ken Marshall, who sits on the Finance Committee that will hear the proposal next month, said the legislature is generally supportive of extending public education, but “a lot of questions” remain. States that have tried similar programs have encountered “unintended consequences,” he said, including funneling money away from other important programs like municipal school systems, and discouraging people from serving in the military — the incentive of service for many being the GI Bill. It is also unfair to residents who have already paid for a state college education, Rep. Marshall said. Will they now need to be reimbursed in the form of tax breaks? There are also private colleges to consider, he said.
“The governor’s proposal is strictly for state colleges,” Rep. Marshall said. “The independent higher ends feel they’re being left off the table. How about we make it fair for people across the board?”
Rep. Marshall proposed a voucher program that would provide funds for students to go to state or private institutions, or for those interested in the trades to go to trade school.
“I’ve said this before, not all kids are college material,” Rep. Marshall said. “Tradespeople are reaching retirement age and there aren’t enough apprentices learning. We have a gap now. If you’re going to give a 14-year education, you should incorporate trade schools.”
Regardless of the institution, college education is a huge financial burden on students, prompting many to forego the experience and head right into the workforce. Annual tuition and fees currently cost in-state students about $12,884 at URI, $8,206 at RIC, and $4,266 at CCRI.
Those who do enroll in college are often saddled with huge debt upon graduation, even if they’ve received a need-based scholarship. Nearly 75 percent of college students must take loans to afford tuition. On average, Rhode Island students graduate college with more than $35,000 of student loan debt, second highest in the country.
The state is better equipped to absorb the expense, Mr. Gallagher said. The governor’s office estimates the program would cost the state $10 million in its first year, increasing annually as more students take advantage. It should cost $13 million in its second year, $18 million in its third, and $30 million by fiscal 2021, where the governor’s office believes the cost will plateau.
While that may sound like a lot of money to some, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the state’s $9 billion annual budget, Mr. Gallagher said. Providing two years of education at the state’s highest cost estimate would take up less than one-half of one percent of the budget.
That would be true if the state’s estimated cost is accurate, Rep. Marshall said. Even so, $30 million is $30 million, and the state cannot just depend on revenue growth every year, he said. Specifically, he mentioned sales tax dollars expected to start funneling into Rhode Island from Amazon.com, which previously charged no sales tax. That money has not started flowing yet, and is not guaranteed.
“We shouldn’t be spending funds we haven’t achieved yet,” Rep. Marshall said. “Rhode Island is burdened with high taxes, high energy costs. Whether it’s $1 or $35 million, any funds we interject into the budget on an annual basis affects taxpayers. Is it worth it? There are a lot more questions than answers.”
Rep. Marshall hinted that the governor’s proposal may be delayed for another year while the General Assembly waits to see if growth continues and money like that from Amazon actually comes to fruition.
“It’s a worthwhile conversation. I think my colleagues share similar concerns of how it’ll be managed and how it’’’ be funded,” Rep. Marshall said. “There are a lot of questions. More time gives you a better product at the end of the day.”
Compared to the larger state budget, investing a small amount in education is a worthy and necessary cause, Mr. Gallagher said. That relatively small amount of money can be found in such a large budget, he said, especially with state revenues growing at an average of 2 percent each year.
“Revenues are up; we’re trying to run the government more efficiently,” Mr. Gallagher said. “This is the time to make an investment. It’s just the right thing to do. We can’t afford not to make this investment.”