Gov. Gina Raimondo is pushing hard to make Rhode Island first again, this time by guaranteeing two years of free college tuition to the three state institutions of higher education, URI, Rhode Island College, and the Community College of Rhode Island. If her proposal passes the legislature, the effort would be akin to Raimondo’s pension reform work, which gained national attention as other states looked to it as a model for digging out of their own pension morasses. Three other states, Minnesota, Oregon and Tennessee, offer something similar, but none of them apply the funding to four-year institutions. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last month proposed a measure that includes that state’s four-year colleges, but limits access to families making less than $100,000.Raimondo’s plan, which she is calling Rhode Island’s Promise, has no such limitations. As long as a high school senior — or a recent recipient of a GED — starts college the following fall and maintains at least a 2.0 grade point average, they’re in. In addition to helping families give their children the benefit of a degree, this program aims to satisfy the call of employers in all spheres for educated, skilled employees. As proposed, the cost is estimated at $10 million for fiscal year 2018, rising to $30 million in fiscal 2021 as more students take advantage of the program and complete their schooling. The funding would be available to all CCRI students and to juniors and seniors at URI and RIC. In a visit with us this month talk up the plan, Raimondo’s deputy chief of staff, Kevin Gallagher, said the proposal is designed as much to keep students in school as it is to make at least a two-year degree more accessible. Gallagher pointed to the fact that many students end up leaving a four year school after their sophomore year because college savings have been depleted and many of those who continue are forced to work to pay for college, resulting in reduced course loads and an increased likelihood that they won’t finish with a degree.Raimondo’s statistics indicate that only 49 percent of URI students and 14 percent of RIC students complete their degrees in four years. Worse, only 5 percent of CCRI students finish a two-year degree on time. Raimondo’s plan, part of her proposed state budget now making its way through the legislature, would be funded by reductions in other areas, specifically some $39 million in savings from the Executive Office of Health and Human Services through proposed changes in long-term care that would make it possible to keep more elders out of nursing homes. Additionally, other health department initiatives include modifications to payment rates for hospitals and nursing homes — guaranteed to draw criticism from those camps — and improving coordination between Medicaid and Medicare, according to her staff.Another $7 million-plus is estimated to come from savings in general expenses from measures such as the state’s anti-fraud system, improving tax revenue collection, and outsourcing components of the workers’ compensation system for state employees. Gallagher noted that as part of the $9 billion proposed state budget, the cost of this program is minor with significant benefits. “This is not another entitlement program,” he said. “College is not a luxury — it’s a requirement.” But Rhody students leave with an average college debt of $35,169, he said, which is the second highest in the nation and as much of a hindrance as that degree is a benefit. Raimondo’s team was quick to acknowledge that the traditional college program is not for everyone, but with CCRI offering technical degrees and certifications, such as those available at the Westerly Higher Education and Job Skills Center, this program can help a wide range of individuals.With funding for this first-in-the-nation program included in the state budget through savings and better use of taxpayer money, we see only good, and no element worthy of criticism.