For students that were able to enroll in the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) due to the Rhode Island Promise Scholarship program – which provides free tuition to full time students that maintain a 2.5 GPA and take 30 credits for both years – the promise of a better future forged through a higher education remains very much alive.
Five of those students, each entering their second year under Rhode Island Promise, gathered in the president’s conference room at CCRI Tuesday to meet with Governor Gina Raimondo for a roundtable discussion about their utilization of the program and their impressions of it so far.
“Rhode Island Promise pushes you to do your best and try your best, you know what I mean?” said David Mota, a Pawtucket native aspiring towards a degree in radiology.
“Totally. That’s why we designed it that way,” answered Raimondo with a smile. “We require you to get a minimum grade point average and take a certain number of classes, and we’ll take care of tuition. So, if you stay on that path, we know you’re going to graduate in two years with that degree. I’m not saying it’s easy.”
The students spoke about how certain classes – anatomy and physiology for Mota, and math for Pilgrim High School graduate Chantrea Heang (aspiring towards a degree in cybersecurity) – were particularly challenging to them, but how the school provides plenty of opportunities for counseling and tutoring to keep up.
“They’re pretty tough but as long as you pay attention and you stay committed and study, you’ll be fine,” said Kyle Alessandro, another graduate of Pilgrim working towards a degree in mechanical engineering. “That’s how I look at it.”
In terms of how the program is set up, students had nothing but positive things to say about how it is organized. Many of the students were enrolled in the Joint Admissions Agreement, which enables students to immediately switch to the University of Rhode Island or Rhode Island College upon their completion of their associate’s degree at CCRI.
“You get everything planned out way before the semester even starts,” said Joel Coss, a graduate of Cranston East working towards a degree in marketing, adding that he feels comforted by how the Promise program provides a structured guideline based on the discipline studied that he said makes it almost impossible to do the wrong thing.
Raimondo complimented the students on their tenacity and work ethic after asking if any of them were working jobs during their full-time studies. Each of the students had a job in addition to going to class. Coss works full time at a nursing home as a server in the restaurant. Mota works two jobs and Marissa Stevenson, a Tiverton High School graduate, puts in long hours at Dunkin Donuts. Heang works full time at Siemens.
Raimondo implored the students to stick with the program and finish up this year to get their degree, and the opportunities presented to them will increase rather than if they went into the workforce without any type of advanced degree.
“It’s okay to make minimum wage on the side trying to get through college, but without some degree or skill, you can be stuck at that wage. And that’s tough,” she said.
Preliminary statistics show real promise
Although Sara Enright, VP of Student Affairs and Chief Outcomes Officer, said that more detailed statistics are still pending from the first batch of Rhode Island Promise students, initial analyses of the figures show that the program has had a significantly positive impact on multiple areas, including the number of first-time, full-time students and the number of students on track to graduate from the school in two years.
In total, there was a 43 percent increase in first-time, full time students straight from high school to the college in the first year of the Promise program. Of these numbers, this includes a 54 percent increase in the number of students receiving federal Pell grants and a 62 percent increase in students of color. For the Fall 2018 semester, there were more than 2,000 first-time, full-time students enrolled.
“It’s not really a surprise to me because a lot of students, the reason they don’t go to college is because of tuition,” said Heang in response to Raimondo asking if those enrollment numbers were a surprise to the students.
Raimondo added that the Pell grant statistic was particular important. Speaking in response to a reporter’s question about critics of the program, Raimondo said that the program costs around $3 million to implement and that the return of students receiving Pell grant funding equates to around $3.5 million in federal dollars coming into the state that would otherwise not be realized.
“A lot of kids weren’t going to bother to apply because they thought they couldn’t afford it,” she said. “Once they decided to apply because they could have free tuition, they found out they were federal Pell grant eligible.”
Another key statistic focused on by the administrators was retention rates – 62 percent of Rhode Island Promise students from last fall remained with the school this fall. The remaining 38 percent could have transferred to another state school, joined the workforce or military or dropped out entirely, though those specifics were not known at the time of the discussion. This rate is higher than the similar model used by Tennessee for its free tuition program, which saw a 58 percent retention.
However, the statistic that got Raimondo and CCRI staff the most excited was in relation to credit accumulation. According to Meghan Hughes, president of CCRI, a student earning 30 credits in their first year at CCRI is the strongest indicator that they are on track to graduate in two years. The year before the Promise program began, CCRI had only 6 percent of its students on this track; half the national average of 12 percent.
The first year of Rhode Island Promise revealed 22 percent of students were on track to graduate, indicating a nearly quadrupling of the rate prior to the inception of the program.
“I believe time will show it will have been the most successful intervention ever to crank up college graduation rate,” Raimondo said.
Still, reporters raised the point that some will look at the 22 percent rate as still being low, which Hughes took as an opportunity to improve.
“I hope there’s no one in this room that thinks that 22 percent is where we want to end up,” Hughes said. “I think we will be hard pressed to find another community college in the country that saw that kind of improvement in a single year.”
Finally, one reported opened the door to politics, bringing up how gubernatorial opponent Allan Fung has criticized the program as being a waste of taxpayer money.
“That’s wrong,” Raimondo said. “The results are fantastic, and if he were to be elected and undo this program, it would take our economy backwards to where we were when I started, which was the highest unemployment rate in the country.”