Local students rally for Raimondo’s free college plan

Local students rally for Raimondo’s free college plan

Gov. Gina Raimondo speaks at Tolman High School last Tuesday, about the importance of college, as she promotes her plan to high school students to provide two years of free education at a Rhode Island college or university. (Breeze photos by Charles Lawrence)

PAWTUCKET – Tolman High School joined other schools from across the state by hosting a rally to promote Gov. Gina Raimondo’s free college plan last week.

Sarah Diallo, a senior at the high school, told The Breeze that her decision on where to go to school will be determined by what happens with Raimondo’s “Rhode Island’s Promise” plan to give students from Rhode Island more of their state college education for free.

Diallo said she’s applied to 11 schools, with a goal to go into nursing. She said she wants to help people get better and give them hope.

Diallo said she hasn’t received her full financial aid offers yet, but said she will still come well short of what she needs to get through college. Student debt is a significant problem and one she worries about often, said Diallo, and she said a plan to give students two free years of college would make her decision an easy one.

Diallo said she doesn’t agree with some critics that reducing the cost of education will cheapen the product. She said she’s spoken to classmates and believes the free college plan will give students more incentive to get an education beyond high school knowing that it’s now more attainable.

“It’s going to motivate them to go to college and be who they want to be,” she said, adding that many students are saying they’re open to going to college if it’s made more affordable.

One of Tolman’s top students, Diallo has applied to schools like Brandeis University, UMass Amherst, Northeastern University, Curry College, the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College.

At last week’s rally, Mayor Donald Grebien thanked Raimondo for her initiative, emphasizing that Pawtucket continues to invest in its schools to make sure students are prepared for life after high school.

“The Rhode Island Promise Scholarship will create a seamless pathway for students and position our economy for the future,” he said.

Raimondo said that most jobs in Rhode Island when she was a teenager required only a high school degree, but that’s just not the case anymore.

“Today, a college degree is the surest ticket to the middle class,” she said in a release. “If we want our kids to have a shot in the economy of the future, we need to make higher education more affordable for students like the ones I met today at Tolman. My free college tuition proposal will let these kids take charge of their own future, by offering them the opportunity to compete for the good jobs we’re creating here.”

Raimondo has absorbed some criticism both for her plan to offer free years of college and for her use of high school pep rallies to lobby for it. The governor has said that it’s the young people at these rallies who will be impacted most by the proposal, but that Rhode Island as a whole stands to gain significantly from the plan.

The governor’s mantra has been that “the hardest part of college shouldn’t be paying for it.” Under the plan being considered by the General Assembly, the state will provide a free associate’s degree and cut the cost of a four-year degree in half for every student. At the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College, students would get free tuition and fees for the third and fourth years of college while working to graduate on time and in good academic standing.

Raimondo has said the addition of millions of dollars from a new Amazon sales tax “certainly helps” with initiatives like the free college plan, but says it’s the “tough choices to get our fiscal house in order” that have made it possible to make the investment. The state “can’t afford not to” put $30 million toward the plan, she says.

According to the governor’s office, low-income students like many in Pawtucket spend nearly 75 percent of their family’s income to cover the cost of college, while middle-income families spent about one-third of their income.

Catherine Rolfe, spokeswoman for Raimondo, said the governor’s proposal is rooted in her belief that education is a significant form of economic development. Statistics say businesses locate in places where a high percentage of people are ready to enter the workforce. Rhode Island would also benefit from more students staying here, she said.

Though there’s no requirement that students have to stay in Rhode Island after school to get the financial benefit, a high percentage of Rhode Island students who attend schools in their home state end up staying here to live, said Rolfe.

Rolfe acknowledged that the governor and her staff have heard the complaint that many parents who have already paid good money to put their students through school don’t want to be asked now to pay for other people to go to school, but she said the high costs those parents experienced are “what got us here in the first place” with big college debt.

“We can’t change the past,” she said.

With Rhode Island having the second highest student debt in the country, funding education is “clearly a problem,” said Rolfe, and the “smartest decision” is to become the first state in the country to offer two years of free college to every student.

Students and faculty applaud Gov. Gina Raimondo’s plan to help with the cost of a college education.
Tolman High School senior Nicole Tifa introduced the governor and told the gathering she is going to be the first in her family to receive a college education.
Pawtucket Mayor Donald Grebien said the program is about giving young people an opportunity and encouraging them to stay in Rhode Island.