Rhode Island Joins Ranks Of 'Free College' States

With more drama than a daytime soap opera, it is no surprise that everyone is fixated on Washington, D.C. to predict where our nation will head next. But it turns out that individual states are making some game-changing plays that could soon provoke a sea change in conventional public policy. Though it may be famous for its minuscule status, Rhode Island could bring the United States a giant step closer toward treating community college as a public good. The nation’s geographically smallest state has just made community college tuition-free.

Well, it’s not completely tuition free, and that could actually be a good thing for expanding the reform to other states. The tuition-free community college is only available for recent high school graduates who attend full-time and maintain a 2.5 grade-point average. It is predicted that 1,200 to 1,300 students will receive the state’s tuition-free community college scholarship this fall, which kicks in after other grants and scholarships have been exhausted. How much does this cost the Ocean State? A mere $2.8 million.

Rhode Island joins Oregon in making community college tuition-free only for recent high school graduates. Oregon, which also requires a 2.5 GPA to be maintained, is more generous than Rhode Island when it comes to part-time students: If you’re taking six credit-hours per semester, you are eligible for the grant. The states’ cost is $40 million over two years, but is projected to need roughly $8 million more, for a total of $48 million. Tennessee, which offers free community college to all adults, is expecting to pay out $10 million per annum. 

New York offers free community college and university tuition, but only if students take 30 credit-hours per year (averaging fifteen credit-hours in each fall and spring semester, or five traditional three-hour classes) and have annual family income less than $125,000. The cost is $87 million per year, with an estimated 22,000 students taking advantage. California, another bastion of liberalism, may be the next state to jump on the free-college train.

By limiting their tuition-free scholarships to students who take full course loads and maintain a good GPA, these four states are not breaking the bank. This is a clear refutation of Republican arguments that liberal policies like “free college” will bankrupt states and lead to societal collapse. As in European countries that offer “free” higher education, students must prove aptitude and effort to get in the door. States are utilizing tuition-free community college (and/or university) education as a shrewd investment, not just an entitlement.

If California joins the ranks, or a few smaller states sign up, a critical mass of “free college” may be reached and prompt a slew of additional states, including Republican states, to implement that reform. Why?  Pressure to remain economically competitive and appealing to major employers.  Recent reports indicate that businesses are struggling to find applicants who have suitable skills, as well as can pass a drug test. Basically, America’s youth are not getting the education and wholesome motivation they need.

Tuition-free community college can supply more young men and women with actual job skills and give them a wholesome path that keeps them away from drugs. Studies show that college-age men and women who are not in college are more likely to abuse drugs and tobacco. Being in college, which typically entails doing something productive and socially praised, can help 18-to-22-year-olds avoid the aimlessness and despair that leads to abusing intoxicants. Simply put, tuition-free college can keep more young Americans on the path toward highly-skilled, full-time employment.

Dollar for dollar, states are likely to end up making money by investing in tuition-free community college. Every young person who cannot afford college and ends up in a series of minimum-wage, non-benefited jobs may end up costing the state thousands of dollars per year in social welfare spending. Putting teens in college, and keeping them in, can instill positive habits that help reduce social welfare burdens. Taxpayers may balk initially at funding tuition-free community college at first, but will come to appreciate the reform later when they do not have to fund as much food stamp, drug abuse counseling, and prison spending.

While voters may not exactly be receptive to this sort of long-run pitch, they are likely to be very susceptible to large employers moving to states that offer free community college and can supply a regular influx of fresh graduates. Even conservative voters will cotton to free college after a few major employers leave their states for greener educational pastures. If Texas loses out on a manufacturing plant to New York, and New York’s better educational climate it credited, even ultra-red districts in west Texas will be clamoring for tuition-free community college.

Plus, when it comes to one’s children, even the most ideological voters tend to be pragmatists.  The majority of any free college program would be borne by large companies and the ultra-rich, meaning that everyone up through the upper-middle-class gets a sweet deal. Even devout Republican voters are unlikely to turn down the chance to have a free community college option for their kids. Therefore, as the number of “free college” states grows, even Republicans will stop resisting… and may even start accepting.

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