Scott MacKay Commentary: Raimondo's College Tuition Plan A Smart Move

Jan 20, 2017

Maybe all you have to know about Gov. Gina Raimondo’s free tuition plan is this: Americans with no more than a high school education have now fallen so far behind in salaries that the earnings chasm has reached its widest point on record.

That means that college graduates made 56 percent more, on average, than high school graduates  in 2015, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute. That’s an increase from a  51 percent difference in 1999.

The trend is clear: People who forego higher education are digging themselves into an economic rut. Most of the well-paid jobs of the future will be held by those with technical skills or a college degree.

A student in the library at Rhode Island College.
Credit Elisabeth Harrison

One of the elements  that for years has held back Rhode Island’s economy is the educational  level of workers. Rhode Island has the lowest proportion of college-degreed workers in New England, with the exception of Maine. It’s no wonder we trail Massachusetts in attracting the better paying jobs.

Anyone who thinks that someone without a skill set or a decent education can build a middle-class family lifestyle in this century is in serious denial. You may as well believe the world is flat.

Government support of higher education isn’t new and isn’t a government giveaway. It harkens to the Civil War era, when the Morrill Act created state land grant universities. More recently came the post-World War II G.I. bill that open the door of college to military veterans, and the federal aid-infused 1950s and 1960s, which channeled money to public colleges and universities. These moves helped forge the strongest middle-class the world has even known.

California set the foundation for one of the world’s most innovative economies with years of virtually free and very low-cost public higher education. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has offered a free tuition public college plan that is much like Raimondo’s. In Rhode Island, Rep. Greg Amore , an East Providence Democrat, has introduced legislation for the past two years that would do what Raimondo is planning.

Baby boomers among us can recall when public higher education was so affordable that graduation meant owing little, or nothing. That’s not true these days. Rhode Island college grads two  years ago  had the dubious ranking of carrying one of the country’s highest debt loads, an average of $32,000 per student.

Colleges also create a better civic culture. Everyone knows we could use that in Rhode Island. There are some by-products of college training that are not easily measurable, including appreciation for art and history and an understanding of how to deal with changing economic and environmental conditions.

Raimondo’s free tuition plan is structured to help students who help themselves. It’s only open to in-state students who complete two years of school and are in good academic standing at the University of Rhode Island, the Community College of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College. If you work hard, the state will be your partner. This incentive may well serve to keep top scholars in our state, rather than heading off to more expensive schools beyond our borders.

There has been criticism of the governor, mostly from Republicans. Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, who lost the governorship to Raimondo in 2014, has asked why taxpayers ought to pick up the tuition tab for public college students, but not others. The House Republican Leader, Patricia Morgan of West Warwick, wonders if the state is piling an unsustainable government program on taxpayers.

Surely, there is a political component. Sometimes good policy is good politics. Rhode Islanders of a certain age will remember a politician who championed college aid for working-class students. He was a shy, self-effacing, wealthy man who graduated from Princeton. No less a political leader than John F. Kennedy famously called him the most unelectable man in America.

But Claiborne Pell, whose name was forever attached to the Pell Grant program he ushered through Congress, served six terms as a Rhode Island’s U.S. senator. He never lost an election.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Rhode Island Public Radio at 6:45 and 8:45 and in the evening at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at the On Politics Blog at RIPR.org