Beginning of a Solution: Rhode Island Promise Program
by Emily Miga
Guest Writer: Bentley Univeristy ’21
We are in the same position we were a century ago. At the turn of the 20th century, high school education was becoming increasingly valuable in order to secure a reasonable standard of living. Many resisted this transition, not wanting to pay exorbitant amounts of money for an education that had previously been optional, and lawmakers responded, reframing school systems to include this education for all American students.
Now, it is university education that is becoming increasingly valuable but supportive legislation is lacking. In 2017, Rhode Island Governor, Gina Raimondo, proposed the Rhode Island Promise program as an effort to make college education a realistic option for all Rhode Island students. If students meet a number of eligibility requirements, including residing in Rhode Island, enrolling as a full-time student directly after high school, filling out the FAFSA and maintaining a 2.0 GPA while in college, the state pays their tuition and mandatory fees. This would allow students to receive their Associate’s Degree from Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) or their Bachelor’s Degree from Rhode Island College (RIC) or University of Rhode Island (URI) (with only junior and senior year tuition covered by the program).
Throughout the past year, lawmakers have vetted Raimondo’s proposal and the result is a much leaner program that is, frankly, inadequate. Now the program is restricted to the two tuition-free years at CCRI. While this version will still aid some, it will not have nearly the same effect on students as the initial plan would have.
When the Promise program was first discussed, a major benefit that many saw was the ability to get a Bachelor’s Degree from RIC or URI. Students who would have attended only CCRI to receive their associate’s degree, now would have the option to receive their bachelor’s degree by attending RIC or URI during their freshman and sophomore year and then have their junior and senior year paid for by the program. Their other option would be to attend CCRI for two years and transfer to URI or RIC for their bachelor’s at a much lower cost. With the new version of the program, these options are taken away from students entirely. Raimondo’s vision was not to make one school cheaper, it was to make higher education more accessible. Being able to receive a Bachelor’s Degree at a significantly lower cost was a major step in the right direction, but now that has been taken away.
Restricting the program to just CCRI also helps much fewer students than it seems. A primary eligibility requirement of the program was that students submit the FAFSA in order to secure any possible federal scholarships, thus reducing the money the state would have to pay. This seems reasonable, but when paired with the fact that 70 percent of CCRI students meet the requirements for the federal Pell Grant, which covers the cost of tuition there, it is illogical.
Most of the remaining 30 percent still receive some federal aid. The new Promise program will close the gap for the 30 percent of students who do not meet the Pell Grant requirements, but destroys opportunities for many of the remaining 70 percent who aspire to receive their Bachelor’s Degree.
The Promise program created opportunities for these students who could use the program’s scholarship to close the gap after federal scholarships. Now, students no longer have that option. The new heavily-truncated version of the program limits students’ ability to earn a four-year degree, when the two-year degree availability was not a major issue in the first place. Why bother enacting such a restricted version if it leaves the vast majority of students exactly where they were before?
Raimondo’s proposal was the beginning of a solution to a problem we have faced before. The initial Rhode Island Promise program held real opportunities for students and could have been the beginning of a larger movement. Instead, students’ futures will continue to be limited and their bank accounts, stifled with debt. Rather than making college a feasible option for more students and allowing many to pursue education farther than they would have without it, Rhode Island lawmakers have simply pushed the situation to the side yet again.