by by Ava Lubell

Following in the tradition of late US Senator Claiborne Pell, Rhode Island Rep. Joseph McNamara (D-Dist. 19, Warwick, Cranston) has introduced legislation designed to make college more affordable. The "Rhode Island Bachelor's Degree in Three Program Act" could slash a year's worth of tuition costs for eligible Rhode Island students. The proposed law tasks the Rhode Island Board of Governors for Higher Education with designing a program that would allow low-income high school students to earn college credits that will shorten their time as undergraduates.

Three-year degree programs are hardly a new idea. Middlebury is one of several private colleges that offer a three-year program. The Ohio school system also has a three-year program in place. But the current economic climate lends a sense of urgency to the legislation. Indeed, this past fall, the Board of Governors announced a tuition hike for the Spring 2009 semester and full 2010 academic year.
Co-sponsors from the Health, Education and Welfare Committee and the presidents of URI, RIC and CCRI accompanied Representative McNamara to a press conference in the RI Statehouse last Tuesday. Standing before a small audience and two television cameras, he enthusiastically outlined what he hoped the new law could accomplish. "We want to develop a nationally recognized program," he declared. McNamara explained that his plan could encourage the best students to stay in the Rhode Island school system and enter the state workforce. McNamara further maintained that the bill could increase the competitiveness of community colleges.
Currently, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provides money to increase the size of Pell Grants. President Obama's budget proposal this week also promised some relief in the form of tax cuts and reduced interest rates on college loans.
But while the President's stimulus package and budget proposal have been met with significant resistance, no group has actively opposed McNamara's plan. For now, the bill merely empowers the Board of Governors to develop a pilot program they would later implement. Christina Ma, a public policy student at Brown University, approves of the approach. "I think they're doing this in a smart way," she told the Independent. Ma acknowledges that some students might require four years in college for personal growth, but says she knows "several people who graduated from college in three years to save money and they're doing wonderfully."
Many of the bill's other supporters seem similarly focused not only on its financial implications, but also its potential educational and administrative benefits. Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Peter McWalters and Jack Warner, Commissioner of Higher Education also attended and spoke positively of the existing dual degree program and McNamara's proposal.
When the Independent asked about the law's probable impact on high school administrations, both commissioners eagerly emphasized that the legislation seeks to codify the dual enrollment program that specifically targets urban high schools catering to low-income communities. The Mt. Pleasant, Central Falls and Met High School systems partner with RIC, URI and CCRI to offer students the chance to earn college credit.
While more affluent school districts frequently offer such courses to students, urban districts do not always provide their students the same opportunity. "These are courses they should be offering anyway," said Commissioner McWalters, expanding upon his words from a Statehouse press release that a Degree in Three program would "encourage more schools to offer students challenging courses that can prepare them for success in college."
The bill requires no immediate changes to the curricula of Rhode Island high schools or colleges. But in speaking to the Independent, Elliot Krieger of the Rhode Island Department of Education pointed out that the legislation could eventually act as "a lever to get all schools to offer advanced courses."
It is unclear how the legislation would impose additional burdens on high schools and colleges. The Board of Governors has almost a year to create a workable program and identify how it could affect all institutions involved. High schools offering advanced placement courses must pay a fee to the College Board and have the proper teaching staff. It remains conceivable that the bill could force some high schools to incur costs they might want to avoid.
The Rhode Island Federation of Teachers (RIFT) has yet to take an official position on the bill. But Colleen Callahan, RIFT's Director of Professional Issues, has high hopes. "We're attempting to build a system that ensures all high school students have the information necessary to get a handle on what the opportunities are," she said over the phone. Callahan noted that past participants of the dual enrollment program learned strategies that helped them stay organized. "The students gain confidence too. I think most people don't realize how dual enrollment helps students feel less intimated by and more psychologically prepared for college... It can be overwhelming."

AVA LUBELL '09 learns by the hour.