Earlier this month, the Rhode Island Hope Scholarship Pilot Program Act, also known as H 5099, was introduced in the Rhode Island General Assembly. This bill, if passed and signed into law, would fund a five-year pilot program that subsidizes students’ junior and senior years at Rhode Island College, making them tuition-free.
“The purpose of the program is to increase the number of college graduates in the state of Rhode Island, and particularly, with the shortage that we are facing in a couple of critical areas, that being nursing and certified teachers – education, as well as social workers, for our state to survive in the 21st century,” State Rep. Joseph McNamara (D-Dist. 19), the main sponsor of this bill, told The Anchor.
McNamara also cited the economic benefits this legislation would provide for Rhode Island. He said, “We know that seven out of 10 jobs are going to require a postsecondary credential, so this is really essential; it’s an economic strategy for our state. And the reason Rhode Island College has been chosen for it, we believe that Rhode Island College has underutilized resources that could accommodate this program easily.”
The eligibility for this program has similarities to the Rhode Island Promise Program. Some of the qualifications for this scholarship are that applicants must be eligible for in-state tuition; must fill out the FAFSA form; must be on track to graduate, meaning to have obtained at least 60 credits towards an eligible program of study, as determined by RIC and have a GPA of 2.5 or higher.
Similar to the Promise Program, those who obtain this scholarship and graduate have to commit to living in Rhode Island post-graduation. For this bill, McNamara explained the commitment is “Two years with several exceptions,” with those exceptions being “Military service, activation of ROTC training programs that are associated with the school where you’d have to leave and chronic sickness.”
The program is one time per person, and those who have already qualified for the Promise Program wouldn’t be eligible for this scholarship.
Since this program would be taxpayer-funded, how much it will cost will be on legislators’ minds. The Promise Program costs around $7 million a year. McNamara said, “I think it might be around the same area, maybe a little bit lower.” when asked if the price tag would be higher or lower compared to the Promise Program.
The bill has several co-sponsors, some of whom are alumni of RIC, which includes State Rep. Enrique Sanchez (D-Dist. 9), State Rep. Leonela Felix (D-Dist. 61) and State Rep. Nathan Biah (D-Dist. 3).
“We know that a lot of students who attend RIC come from Rhode Island families, working-class families,” Sanchez told The Anchor. “RIC is the cheapest out of all the four-year schools in Rhode Island and it’s right around the corner, it’s right down the street from people in Providence. When I was there, I saw the students that were there. It’s a very diverse student body. It’s a very young student body. Due to the COVID burden over these last three years, that has affected enrollment rates, that has affected tuition rates, that has affected the ability for our institution to provide and give that flexibility for our students. So, we need to push for this bill this year and then hopefully something along the lines with a Rhode Island Promise Program implemented at RIC down the road.”
This bill also connects with Sanchez on a personal level as someone who attended RIC during his junior and senior years of college. He explained that he would have qualified for this bill during his time as a student, and it would have “Absolutely” set him off on a better foot financially after graduation.
Next on the checklist for this bill would be to have support from the State House and Senate leadership along with the governor. McNamara said he talked to Gov. McKee six months ago and that governor seemed “enthusiastic” about this idea. As for conversations with leadership, he said “They are proceeding.”
“As part of our state higher education system, Rhode Island College is an extremely important resource, opening new doors of opportunity for the thousands of students and families it serves,” Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D-Dist. 4) told The Anchor when asked about this bill. “Taking action to strengthen this vital institution, now and for the future, remains a top priority for the Senate. We have explored several possibilities, including investments in targeted areas of study aligned with critical workforce needs. Any legislation related to RIC that is introduced in the Senate this session, including the Hope Scholarship proposal, will receive thorough and serious consideration in the Senate.”
McNamara said he also spoke with RIC President Dr. Jack Warner last week and that Warner is “very excited” about the bill.
At the time of publication, this bill has been referred to the House Finance Committee. Upon passage, the pilot program would begin on July 1, 2023 and go until Jan. 1, 2029.