Free tuition proposal is flawed


Perhaps it is because I am a trustee of a RI private non-profit university and that I attended another one, Salve Regina, but I believe that my opposition to the governor’s free college tuition plan is because of my lifetime as a public interest attorney. The two final years free tuition does not benefit poorer students and the $30 million price tag is speculative. It also threatens to topple private universities whose student base is populated by a significant Rhode Island contingent. Governor Gina Raimondo’s entire tuition proposal could leave higher education in shambles.

Poorer students are not helped.

The Governor’s plan has no financial cap for eligibility. It is unseemly that middle class folks who paid for and who have loans for their children’s education, as well as Granny and Grandpa who sacrificed for their grandchild to attend an institution of higher learning would now be asked to have their tax dollars used to benefit high income people. This isn’t about class warfare: it’s about equity. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at least had an income cap on her proposal.

Because the Governor ‘s plan is a “last dollar” program, i.e. taking effect when all other available funds like the Pell Grants are exhausted, lower income students get no benefit since they can attend college already with federal monies. The “Raimondo Grants” are a bonanza for the well-heeled who have too much money for federal aid. The governor’s free tuition plan is welfare for the rich and connected.

The $30 million price tag is speculative.

Curiously, it so happens that Amazon is projected to return $30 million (money the speaker would like to tap to reduce car taxes) in online sale taxes and the tuition program will allegedly cost that much. Yet, if there is a migration of students from private universities, coupled with new students, the cost will escalate. Professors in state colleges have union contracts with provisions for class size so more professors would be in the pipeline. Class space (and perhaps dorm space) would have to be constructed for the potentially additional influx of approximately 15-20 percent of students now enrolled in R.I. private institutions. In other words, the projected costs are just the floor, not the ceiling.

Private non-profit colleges will be impacted.

Some universities like Salve Regina have close to 20 percent of their students from R.I., and Providence College slightly less than that. Roger Williams University has about 10 percent. Were an exodus to occur these universities would take a direct hit on their operational costs which might threaten their fiscal health. There is no reason why, if the goal is to enhance the educational prowess of students, that the plan should only apply to public university attendance.

In sum, the Governor should go back to the drawing board and, at a minimum, put an income cap on eligibility to make it a middle class benefit. Rather than jeopardize the fiscal health of private non-profit colleges, free tuition should benefit all the in-state colleges. There should also be some provisions for in-state service, even if modeled after the Peace Corps, so that eligible students live and work here for a period of time. So many business start-ups took money from R.I during their fledgling years and then fled after they scored the benefit of the seed money. The governor is in danger of repeating the same mistake in education.

Arlene Violet is an attorney and former Rhode Island Attorney General.

Arlene Violet


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