Scores of high school students joined Governor Gina Raimondo in urging support Wednesday for the governor's proposal for two years of free college tuition. But a bipartisan cross-section of the House Finance Committee reacted coolly to the concept, and the fate of the proposal remains unclear.
Jaislene Vinas, senior class president at Central High School in Providence, was among the students exhorting lawmakers to help potential first-generation college students to reach their potential.
Vinas said many of her peers have the aptitude and motivation to succeed in college, but avoid it because of fears about running up crushing student loans.
"I am not exaggerating when I say many of my closest friends have turned down the option of college not because of the lack of ambition," Vinas said, but because they refuse to accept what I call a debt sentence."
In a rare appearance to make a direct appeal before the Finance Committee, Raimondo called her tuition proposal -- dubbed Rhode Island's Promise -- a game-changer for the state.
"Our proposed Rhode Island's Promise scholarship will provide relief to middle class families who are up at night worried about how they'll pay their kids' college tuition," Raimondo said. "And it will benefit every Rhode Islander - those looking to earn a four-year bachelors degree at URI or RIC, as well as those seeking an associate's degree and technical education at CCRI."
The governor's proposal to give students two years of free tuition at those institutions would cost an estimated $10 million initially, and the bill would grow to $30 million a year -- a tiny amount, she said, in the context of the state's $9 annual billion budget.
But House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello has said the money may be better spent on improving K through 12 education, and expresses concern about Rhode Island being an outlier by rolling out a relatively untested concept.
Raimondo tried to rebut some of the concerns previously expressed by lawmakers. She said a similar initiative backed by Republicans in Tennessee has been successful in boosting college graduations by 80 percent.
"This proposal isn't about giving something away for free," she added. "It's about guaranteeing access to opportunity and job training for every Rhode Islander."
Yet Finance Committee members remained skeptical about the college tuition plan. In part, they questioned whether beneficiaries will remain in Rhode Island after graduation, and whether the state may be better served by a loan-forgiveness program for college students.
State officials responded by saying that most grads of CCRI, RIC, and URI remain in Rhode Island. They said Raimondo's tuition proposal would be a better economic multiplier than a loan forgiveness program.
The Finance Committee is consider its education plan as part of its review of the governor's proposed budget for the fiscal year starting July 1.
Speaking outside the Finance Comittee meeting room after her testimony, Raimondo vowed to continue working to convince Speaker Mattiello of the merits of her college tuition plan.
The fate of the proposal won't become clear until later in the legislative session.