Genesis Sanchez Tavarez was a receptionist, a movie theater supervisor, a cell phone salesperson, a legal assistant — and a college student. Somehow, the Rhode Island College junior has maintained a 3.8 grade point average with a focus on public administration, justice studies and political science while running from one job to another job to school.
“Less time for sleeping and eating and breathing,” she says.
But in May, Tavarez got a reprieve from the governor — a $2,845 Rhode Island’s Promise scholarship, which gave her the funds she needed to cover what her financial aid package didn’t.
“It was a big relief,” she says. “It means that I won’t be paying loans. I’ll have more time for my schoolwork and I’ll be able to enjoy the college experience.”
Like many states, Rhode Island’s support for higher education had been declining for three decades — a 62 percent drop between 1980 and 2011. But last year, the state began to reinvest more seriously. Total state appropriations for higher education rose by nearly 5 percent in fiscal year 2015, and Governor Gina Raimondo fulfilled a campaign pledge to create a state college scholarship fund.
The Rhode Island’s Promise Scholarship is one of several recent initiatives or proposals designed to boost college affordability, access and completion. Prepare RI makes advanced placement courses free, allowing students to earn college credits while in high school. Raimondo’s current budget proposed free college entrance PSAT and SAT exams for high school students and a tuition freeze at the three state-supported schools: the University of Rhode Island (URI), the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) and Rhode Island College (RIC).
Her motivation is partly personal.
“My father was the first person in his family to go to college on the GI Bill,” Raimondo says. “That changed my family forever, and I am very much on a mission to make sure everyone in Rhode Island can have the same opportunities I had.”
Yet as the cost of a college education continues to surge, those opportunities have diminished. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, outstanding student loan debt in 2015 reached a staggering $1.2 trillion. The average debt balance upon graduation was $29,000, a 56 percent increase over the previous decade and more than twice the rate of inflation, the Institute for College Access and Success found in 2014.
For low-income students, tuition debt can be an onerous burden, because they are more likely to borrow from private banks with higher interest rates and fewer borrower protections, and they are less likely to actually graduate from college. “Doing Away with Debt,” a 2013 report by the nonprofit Education Trust, found that about 80 percent of young people from middle class families earn a bachelor’s degree by age twenty-four, versus only 11 percent of students from families in the lowest income quarterly.
Federal financial aid was originally targeted to support the neediest students, says Michael Dannenberg, of Education Reform Now and a co-author of that report. “But at every level — state, federal and institutional — there has been a proportionate shift in aid toward those who are without economic need. Schools will use financial aid as bait to get highest paying students, and low-income students are hurt by that shift.”
In addition, he says, “The application system is burdensome; the amount of aid is inadequate; and the options available are very confusing. The Raimondo Promise program cuts through the noise to send a loud and clear message to students: Yes, you can go to college.”
The Rhode Island Promise scholarship funds are pooled from the accumulated reserves of the former Rhode Island Higher Education Assistance Authority (RIHEAA) with revenues from the State 529 CollegeBoundfund. More than $10 million in aid has been distributed to some 6,000 students so far. This more than doubled the average size of the state grants awarded by RIHEAA.
The quasi-governmental authority was established in 1977 as the state’s student loan guaranty agency to administer the Federal Family Education Loan Program and to oversee state grants and scholarships. But in 2010, the federal government eliminated the program and began issuing loans directly.
With no new loans in its portfolio, RIHEAA’s revenues dropped from $13 million in 2014 to $6 million in fiscal 2015. Raimondo’s 2015 budget downsized the authority and transferred it to the Office of Postsecondary Commissioner.
Under the old state scholarship program, awards were capped at $500, and followed the student to any school. Rhode Island’s Promise scholarships can only be applied to the state’s public and private institutions, but the maximum award can go up to $4,000 and schools have more flexibility to target these “last-dollar” funds to the demographics of their student bodies.
For example, CCRI expects Promise scholarships in combination with other grants to provide a full ride for upwards of 8,000 students.
“There isn’t a separate application process, and it removes the [federal financial aid application] deadline which has historically excluded many students in our population who tend to come to us later in the year,” says Sara Enright, CCRI’s vice president of student affairs.
RIC used its Promise scholarship money to significantly increase individual awards from an average of $451 to $3,860.
“We have a high percentage of first-generation, lower-income students who really need financial aid to complete a college program in four years,” says RIC spokesperson Laura Hart. “It’s a huge jump and it’s making a difference.”
This year, URI distributed $2.5 million to 3,300 students in grants that ranged from $500 to $1,000. It does not close the gap, says Director of Financial Aid Bonnie Saccucci, because, with higher costs than RIC or CCRI, that gap is much larger.
“It may not sound like much, but it is really critical to our students,” Saccucci says.
Raimondo sees greater access to affordable higher education as a cornerstone of economic development. By 2020, 65 percent of all jobs will require some post-secondary education. While the state’s college attainment rate is above the national average — 43.2 percent of the state’s adults hold an associate’s degree or more — there is still a sizeable gap.
“People are working as hard as ever and making less,” Raimondo says. “The only way to change that is by acquiring the skills needed in the high paying jobs of today. These days when I talk to companies about adding jobs in Rhode Island, their number-one criteria is a skilled workforce. They tell us it’s more important than taxes and regulation. Do you have a talent pipeline?”
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello agrees that an educated workforce and economic development are “critically linked. I support the themes of these initiatives, but we have to look at the details,” he says. “We have a challenging budget.”
And yet a 2013 Economic Policy Institute study found that one of the most important ways to boost a state’s economy is to raise the education level of its citizens.
“When states look for quick fixes, they weaken the economy in the long-term,” says Noah Berger, study co-author and president of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. “The correlation is very strong: States that have educated workforces have stronger and higher-wage economies than those that don’t.”
Given Rhode Island’s changing demographics, that strategy has got to include strivers like Genesis Tavarez. Latinos, at 14 percent of the state population, are our youngest and fastest growing group. But they are also our poorest; only 16 percent have a college degree.
Tavarez moved to Rhode Island from the Dominican Republic ten years ago with her mom, a factory worker. She lost her father when she was five to an unsolved murder. His death has motivated her to attend law school and become a criminal prosecutor.
“Education is a necessity, not a commodity,” she says. “There’s no reason to be paying so much money and going into debt to get what we need to move the state forward and the country. Yes, we are struggling. But we are trying to become something.”
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