ARLENE VIOLET - Free tuition proposal flawed

ARLENE VIOLET - Free tuition proposal flawed

Perhaps it is because I am a trustee of a Rhode Island private non-profit university and that I attended another one, Salve Regina, but I believe that my opposition to Gov. Gina Raimondo’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. The governor’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 other 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 Raimondo’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 $30M price tag is speculative: Curiously, it so happens that Amazon is projected to return $30 million – money House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello would like to tap to reduce car taxes – in online sale taxes. 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 R.I. students who matriculate 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-profits colleges, free tuition should benefit all the in-state colleges. There also should 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. So many business start-ups took money from the state 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.

Violet is an attorney and former state attorney general.


Here are some interesting facts on taxpayer dollars supporting post-secondary education. While I may not agree with the giveaway of so much tax money at least the recipients of these monies had to invest in themselves first to obtain the degree and must be current on their loans as well as employed in Rhode Island. As someone who scarficed to put their children through college and approaching retirement I am well aware the state will need to tax me heavily to meet the demands of all the giveaways. Sometimes I wonder why I have tried so hard to support myself and family when I could have sat back and let the state and federal dollars roll in especially when it appears my "golden years" may not be so golden despite my investment in multiple retirement savings. The bottom line is in order to operate the state and give away so much money through incentives to business, college students, etc. someone needs to foot the tax bill. Thus, I see a decrease in my potential to keep the money I earned and saved in my pocket because the state has their hand in both my pockets more and more to support others.

And once the students whose tuition was free graduate, how does one keep them in Rhode Island? In affect training professionals for some other states benefit with our taxes?