Gina Raimondo’s grassroots approach to free public college tuition

Michelle Terminesi, of Wakefield, has a son in college and a daughter on the way. She and her husband don’t really know how they are going to pay for it.

“We have two people in our family who are trying to make a better life for themselves through college,” she said yesterday, while speaking at the annual Make It In Rhode Island summit as the personal guest of Governor Gina Raimondo. “We’re middle class, so it’s a struggle.”

Terminesi is not a business, education or political leader. She’s one of the “hundreds” of regular Rhode Islanders Raimondo said reached out to her about her proposal for two years of free public college tuition for every Rhode Islander.

“I really think this opportunity gives everyone a shot at the American dream,” Terminesi told the group, who mostly were business, education and political leaders.

It’s part of Raimondo’s bottom-up approach to convincing the state legislature to expand free public education to two years of college at URI, RIC or CCRI. Her Rhode Island’s Promise proposal that would allow any Rhode Island high school student to go to any Rhode Island public college for free for two years. CCRI students could get a free associate’s degree; URI and RIC students could use the free tuition waiver only after completing two years of coursework.

“The main validators are the hundreds of people who have written to me, mostly parents, saying ‘please get this done because I’m so afraid and I don’t know how I’m going to pay for college,'” Raimondo told RI Future after the Make It In RI summit. “The average Rhode Islander is stressed about how they are going to pay for college.”

Raimondo is not just unleashing these validators at public events. She’s also imploring them to lobby their local legislators.

“I’m trying to motivate them to call their legislator and express their support,” she said.

For her part, Raimondo said her office is lobbying “both” legislative leaders and rank and file legislators about the proposal. “I’m talking to as many people as I can about it,” she said. “I take a meeting with anyone who wants it.”

Asked if she had more support from rank and file members than leadership, Raimondo said, “It’s still early in the process, I would say. Overall, though, the more people learn about it, the more they seem to like it. To the extent people have concerns – how are you going to pay for it, how’s it going to work, who is eligible –  when we sit down with them to educate them, by and large people seem to be coming around.”

Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed has said she supports the idea of expanding free public education beyond high school. House Speaker Nick Mattiello has been more skeptical.

“I think it’s not just K-12 that’s important, it’s pre-K to 14,” said Paiva Weed at a recent Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce luncheon. “The two years of free tuition is important so that students in their freshman and sophomore years can start thinking about a CNA with a bachelor’s degree, or a manufacturing certificate with an associate’s degree. That way they can go on if they want to become a nurse or some other job. Not every student is as lucky as I was who had parents who said, ‘You’re going to college,’ and the students never knew that there was a choice to be made.”

Mattiello, on the other hand, at the same luncheon, said, “I think we have to concentrate on K through 12.” He added, “I’m always concerned when we’re first on an initiative that spends money because we don’t have the strongest economy so we have to be very careful in being an outlier whether it’s on the revenue or the expense side.”

Raimondo says it’s time Rhode Island’s public education mandate match the reality of today’s economy.

“That we end it at 12th grade is because once upon a time, not that long ago, you could get a good job with a 12th grade education and the reality is that’s not the case anymore,” she said. “The world changed, the economy has changed and I think our social contract needs to change.”

She added, “I think the economy has left a lot of people behind. People see their wages not going up, people see they are burdened with college debt … they know they aren’t getting ahead and they are worried their kids won’t get ahead and they know it’s a different economy than when they were kids, when I was a kid. People say the playing field isn’t level, it’s changed, and they are right and this is an attempt to level that playing field to give people a shot. People don’t want a handout, they don’t want a gimme. People want a chance, a legitimate shot at opportunity. That’s what people want, a feeling that they have a real shot and an education in America is the only way to get that shot.”

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