Did you hear about Governor Raimondo’s free college proposal? The RI Promise Scholarship, allocates $30 million in new funding to provide 2-years of free tuition for RI students at state public institutions. It’s a proposal we should all stand behind. We should also all demand an improved, equity-minded version that prioritizes low-income students. Here are a few quick takes:
• RI has decreased investment in public higher ed for decades. We’re now one of the bottom 5 states in the US for the percentage of public higher ed budget covered by state funds. We need to do better! And an influx of $30 million is a big move to reverse the damage we’ve done.
• The proposal is clear: all RI students entering public higher ed will benefit from 2-years of free tuition. It’s an accessible, powerful message.
• CV students – especially at URI, which is increasingly hard to afford – will benefit significantly.
• Undocumented immigrant students are eligible for the scholarship. This is a game changer. Until now, there has been virtually no public funding available for undocumented students.
What Needs to Be Improved
• The scholarship covers the difference between the cost of tuition and federal grant aid. Most CV students receive a full Pell grant, which provides about $5,800 per year. This covers the full cost of tuition at CCRI. So our CCRI students not benefit at all from the scholarship. The gain is bigger at RIC and URI, but still not as significant as one might assume for low-income students. The proposal still leaves our students with significant unmet need to cover costs like room, board, books, and transportation.
• The proposal lacks an equity perspective. Right now, all students, regardless of family income, would receive the scholarship. So a family earning $150,000 would actually receive more money than the average CV student, whose family income is $25,000. When income is such a strong predictor of which students enter and complete college, we need to make a much deeper commitment to low-income students.
• Allow student to stack the scholarship on top of federal grant aid. This would enable low-income students to have tuition covered and then use their Pell Grant to cover room, board, books, and transportation.
• Set an income cap or scale for the scholarships to direct more funds to low-income students. For example, only students with a family income under $125,000 are eligible. Or scale the scholarship, so students with income under $100,000 receive the full scholarship, $100,000-150,000 receive half tuition, and those over $150,000 are ineligible.
The stakes are too high for low-income students. Their college graduation rate is significantly lower than for their more affluent peers. So let’s ensure we use this opportunity for the most equitable impact.