NerdWallet’s Guide to Financial Aid Programs in Rhode Island

Rhode Island's offers fewer financial aid options that other states, but it's graduates have less debt.
Kat Tretina
By Kat Tretina 
Edited by Cecilia Clark

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While some states offset the high cost of college with substantial financial aid programs, Rhode Island's offerings are much more limited. In fact, it has one of the lowest rates of state grant aid per full-time undergraduate student; Rhode Island provides about $170 in funding per student, the seventh-lowest amount in the country, according to a 2022 College Board report.

To put that in perspective, consider that South Carolina — the state with the highest level of state grant aid — provided about $2,590 per student.

Though limited, there are still some state aid programs. Whether you have your heart set on attending Brown University, The University of Rhode Island or the Rhode Island School of Design, here are the available financial aid programs specific to Rhode Island.

The cost of education in Rhode Island

There are 13 public and private non-profit colleges and universities in Rhode Island.

Higher education in Rhode Island tends to be much more expensive than it is in other states. Even public universities and community colleges, which are typically lower-cost options, are costly.

Based on the average rates of tuition, fees and room and board for the 2020-2021 academic year, here’s how much you can expect to pay, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics:

  • Public four-year school (in-state): $26,946 per year, about 26% more than the national average of $21,337.

  • Private four-year school: $61,692 per year, about 33% higher than the national average of $46,313.

  • Community college (in-state): $4,806 per year, about 37% higher than the national average of $3,501. (Community college costs don’t include room and board.)

Several factors are behind the high college costs. In addition to Rhode Island's high cost of living and limited financial aid, it's also home to several well-known private universities with hefty price tags that drive up average tuition rates. For example, a student’s estimated total cost for the 2023-2024 academic year at the Rhode Island School of Design is $81,810 — nearly double the national average for private schools.

Financial aid options in Rhode Island

Although public schools are more expensive in Rhode Island than in other states, attending a public university is still cheaper than private school — but only if you qualify for in-state tuition.

You qualify for in-state tuition if you meet one of the following criteria:

  • You attended an approved Rhode Island high school for at least three years.

  • You graduated from an approved Rhode Island high school.

  • You lived in the state for at least 12 months prior to enrollment.

Unlike some states, Rhode Island extends residency to undocumented students, including those with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status. As a result, undocumented and DACA students are eligible for in-state tuition and state aid in Rhode Island if they meet the other residency requirements.

🤓Nerdy Tip

Laws, requirements and aid programs can change. For the latest information, visit the Rhode Island Office of the Postsecondary Commissioner website.

Students may also have trouble finding funding opportunities in Rhode Island because its aid programs aren't listed in one central location. Programs are usually provided through partnerships with other organizations, so they’re often listed on non-government websites that can be difficult to find if you don't already know about them.

Although Rhode Island's options are more limited than those of other states, you may be able to use one or more of the following programs to finance your education:

  • 529 plans.

  • In-state tuition.

  • Scholarships.

  • Tuition waivers.

  • Student loans. 

  • Other aid programs. 

  • Student loan repayment assistance.

529 plans

Rhode Island doesn't have a prepaid tuition plan, but families can use a CollegeBound Saver 529 account to save and invest for a child's future education. The money can grow tax-deferred in a CollegeBound Saver account, and the withdrawals are tax-free as long as they're used for qualifying education expenses. Beneficiaries may use the funds at any U.S.-accredited college; they aren’t limited to Rhode Island schools.

Rhode Island has a higher-than-usual maximum contribution limit; families can contribute to an account until its total market value reaches $520,000 per beneficiary.

The CollegeBound Saver 529 has two other benefits:

  • State income tax deduction: Rhode Island  taxpayers who contribute to this account may qualify for a state income tax deduction. They can deduct up to $500 in contributions individually, or $1,000 if they are married and file a joint return. 

  • Starter Bonus: If you have a newborn or recently adopted a child, Rhode Island will contribute $100 if you open a new CollegeBound Saver account and deposit at least $100. 

In-state tuition

The average total cost of attendance for in-state students at Rhode Island public schools is less than half the average cost of attending a private school.

However, students who want to attend college outside of Rhode Island may qualify for the New England Board of Higher Education’s Tuition Break program. Students who are residents of member states — Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont — can enroll in an eligible program at a public community college or university in another participating state at a reduced rate.

According to NEBHE , the average full-time student saves $8,600 per year with Tuition Break. Exact savings depend on the program and state. You can view the eligible programs and schools on the NEBHE website.

Rhode Island scholarships

Rhode Island offers just two state scholarship programs, both of which are awarded based on academic merit and financial need. The programs are typically very limited in scope and are only available to students at particular schools.

The two Rhode Island scholarship programs are:

Rhode Island Promise Scholarship Program

Through the Rhode Island Promise Scholarship Program, the state will cover up to the full cost of tuition and fees for qualifying students who attend the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) full-time for two years..

To qualify, students must be Rhode Island residents and enroll full-time at CCRI for the semester beginning immediately after their high school graduation.

Students must submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and a separate CCRI application.

Rhode Island College Hope Scholarship

The Rhode Island College Hope Scholarship is a state-funded award offered to eligible students at Rhode Island College (RIC). It is a last-dollar award, meaning it covers the student's remaining tuition and fees after other grants and scholarships are applied.

To qualify, students must be Rhode Island residents and in their junior or senior years at RIC with a GPA of at least 2.5. Applicants must be on track to graduate or earn an approved certificate in a total of four years.

Adult students who have earned at least 60 credits within a four-year period at RIC are also eligible for the scholarship over a duration of two years or less.

The Hope Scholarship is a pilot program; currently, it's set to expire in 2028 unless the state government provides additional funding.

🤓Nerdy Tip

Although state-funded financial aid is limited in Rhode Island, there are scholarships and grants available from other sources. The Rhode Island Foundation maintains a database of scholarships provided by individuals, organizations and companies that are specifically for Rhode Island residents.

Tuition waivers in Rhode Island

If you are eligible for one of Rhode Island's tuition waiver programs, a portion of your tuition costs will be waived at select schools.

The following groups are eligible for tuition waivers in the Ocean State:

Senior citizens

Permanent Rhode Island residents who are 60 or older can take courses at any public institution within the state, and the full tuition will be waived. Admission into particular courses is at the discretion of the university and is based on available space. All other expenses, including textbooks and living expenses, are the student's responsibility. The program is restricted to those with a household income less than three times the federal poverty level.

Disabled veterans

Under Rhode Island’s Disabled Veterans Tuition Waiver, veterans with a qualifying service-connected disability who permanently reside in the state can receive a waiver for the full cost of tuition at Rhode Island's public colleges and universities. Students must apply for and use other financial aid before the waiver is applied.

National Guard service members

Current National Guard members in Rhode Island can qualify for the RI National Guard State Tuition Assistance Program (STAP). This is a waiver that covers up to five classes per semester at Rhode Island's public colleges and universities. Other expenses, such as fees and textbooks, are the responsibility of the student.

To qualify, you must be an Army or Air National Guard service member pursuing an associate, bachelor's or master's degree from the Community College of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College or the University of Rhode Island. Guard members must serve a one year military commitment after leaving school for every 12 course credits completed with the waiver.

Unemployment recipients

If you were laid off from work and filed for unemployment within the last 60 days, you may be eligible for a waiver of tuition costs at Rhode Island's public schools. You can check your eligibility and download a tuition waiver certificate on the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training website.

Rhode Island student loans

The Rhode Island Student Loan Authority (RISLA) is a non-profit agency that issues private student loans for undergraduate students, graduate students and parents. It also provides student loan refinancing for borrowers with existing education debt.

Although there are special benefits for Rhode Island residents, RISLA issues loans to borrowers nationwide with competitive rates. Borrowers can take out loans between $1,500 and $50,000 per year, and can use the funds to pay for education expenses at public or private schools.

Some of RISLA's stand-out benefits include the following:

  • Income-based repayment: RISLA is one of the few private lenders to offer an income-based repayment option for borrowers who can't afford their monthly payments. This plan bases your payments on a percentage of your income, and your loan term can be extended up to 25 years. If you still have a balance after 25 years of qualifying payments RISLA will discharge the remaining amount. Borrowers must demonstrate financial hardship to qualify for this repayment plan. 

  • Nursing Reward Program: If you are a new nurse working in Rhode Island and have RISLA student loans, RISLA will lower your interest rate to 0% for up to four years. Any payments you make during this time will solely go toward the principal, helping you save money and pay off your debt faster. 

  • Loan Forgiveness for Internships programs: If you’re a Rhode Island resident or attend a college within the state and complete a qualifying internship, RISLA will forgive up to $2,000 of your student loans held by the lender. 

Other financial aid programs in Rhode Island

Despite Rhode Island's sparse financial aid roster, three other financial aid programs offered by quasi-state agencies could help some students pay for college:

Wavemaker Fellowship

Offered by the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation, a quasi-state agency, the Wavemaker Fellowship provides qualifying individuals with a tax credit certificate worth the value of their annual student loan payments for up to four years, up to a maximum determined by the borrower's education level:

  • If your highest degree is an associate degree, the maximum is $1,000 per year.

  • If your highest degree is a bachelor's degree, the maximum is $4,000 per year.

  • If your highest degree is a master's degree or higher, the maximum is $6,000 per year.

The fellowship was designed to incentivize graduates to pursue careers or launch new businesses in Rhode Island in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, design or healthcare. You can view the list of eligible job titles and career paths on the organization website.

Health Professional Equity Initiative

The Health Professional Equity Initiative is a new pilot program launched by the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, in partnership with the Rhode Island Office of the Postsecondary Commissioner and Rhode Island College.

The initiative provides financial assistance for paraprofessionals pursuing careers as licensed health professionals through programs at Rhode Island College. It can help cover the cost of tuition, but it also provides funds to cover other expenses, such as childcare or transportation, so that individuals can complete their education.

Knowledge for College Scholarship

In addition to loans, RISLA also operates the Knowledge for College Scholarship program. This isn't awarded based on merit or financial need; instead, applicants complete steps to be entered into a drawing, and the winners are randomly selected.

Selected winners receive $2,000 to cover some of their education expenses with proof of enrollment. To qualify for the award, students must be residents of Rhode Island or attending college in Rhode Island. Students must also register for an account and answer three questions about financial literacy.

Student loan repayment in Rhode Island

In Rhode Island, the average student loan balance is $31,780 per borrower — about 8% less than the national average of $34,577.

Rhode Island only has two student loan repayment programs, and both are partially funded by the federal government:

John R. Justice Prosecutor and Defender Incentive

The John R. Justice program gives states federal funds to dole out to qualifying attorneys with outstanding student loan debt. In Rhode Island, eligible residents who can take advantage of the program include those employed as full-time federal or state defenders, and state or municipal prosecutors handling any phase of juvenile or adult criminal prosecution or defense (federal prosecutors are not eligible).

Funds can only be used to repay federal undergraduate or graduate loans; Parent PLUS Loans are not eligible. Funding varies, but in recent years, the average max award in Rhode Island has been $2,000 per individual.

Health Professional Loan Repayment Program (HPLRP)

Through Rhode Island’s HPLRP, eligible primary care, dental and mental health clinicians can receive financial help with their student loans in exchange for working in high-need areas for a specific period.

In Rhode Island, workers must commit to working in federally-designated health professional shortage areas for at least two years. Participants can apply for service extensions and serve for a maximum of six years.

Award amounts vary by profession, but some healthcare professionals can qualify for up to $20,000 per year for up to four years.

How to apply for financial aid in Rhode Island

To apply for financial aid in Rhode Island, follow these steps:

  • Complete the FAFSA or the Rhode Island alternative aid application: Most of Rhode Island's programs require students to submit either the FAFSA or the Rhode Island Alternative Application for State Postsecondary Student Financial Assistance. Although Rhode Island doesn't have a submission deadline, some programs issue awards on a first-come, first-served basis, so it's wise to submit your application as soon as possible. 

  • Review other requirements: The majority of Rhode Island's financial aid programs are offered in partnership with other organizations or agencies, so they all have different application requirements. Visit the issuing organization's website to find out what information is required and program deadlines. 

  • Reach out to your college financial aid office: Some financial aid options are only offered through a specific college. You can contact your college's financial aid office to find out what programs are available and what you need to do to apply. 

Frequently asked questions

Rhode Island is one of the few states that doesn't specify a deadline. To find out when you need to submit the FAFSA to qualify for state-based aid, contact your selected college's financial aid office.

Rhode Island designed the Alternative Aid Application for those who don't meet the FAFSA's citizenship requirements. Students can submit the Alternative Aid Application instead to apply for financial aid programs.

Rhode Island allows undocumented and DACA students to qualify for in-state tuition and state-based financial aid. However, many of those programs require the FAFSA, and students who aren't citizens and do not have Social Security numbers are ineligible for the FAFSA.

Rhode Island offers free tuition to qualifying students attending the Community College of Rhode Island through the Rhode Island Promise Program. Students can complete two years of full-time study at the school without having to worry about tuition costs.

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