Mall party celebrates College Planning Center's 20 years of helping students

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There weren’t any candles on the birthday cake. Neither Warwick Mall security, nor the fire marshal, would have allowed them anyway.

But no one gave candles much thought as the College Planning Center of Rhode Island has been lighting the way for students seeking a path to higher education for 20 years. The 20th anniversary party was held Tuesday afternoon at the center of the mall with one of the fathers of the CPC, Senator Jack Reed, there to bring greetings.

The effort to help families and their children cope with the challenges of completing the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form and gain some counseling as well, started with a kiosk outside Newport Creamery in Warwick Mall in September 1998. The venue didn’t provide much privacy as shoppers got a view of students frequently accompanied by one or more parent talking with a counselor and leafing through forms.

A lot has changed from those early days. The CPC operates from its own storefront near the outside southwest entrance to the mall – near Target – with three full time personnel and an additional five seasonal employees. In addition, the CPC has a second office in Lincoln at 652 George Washington Highway. This is the busy season for the CPC. The centers are open seven days a week from now through mid-December, says Charles Kelley, executive director the Rhode Island Student Loan Authority that operates the CPC.

Last year the CPC helped 16,000 students and families, completing 4,400 FAFSAs for an increase of 23 percent from the prior year. Rhode Island ranked 8th in the country for the highest percentage of graduating high school seniors completing the form. It’s a ranking Kelley hopes to beat, although he believes it impossible to be first in the country, as Louisiana makes completion of the application for funding a requirement of graduation.

Reed underscored the importance of financial aid in view of college tuitions that have doubled since the CPC started. He said he was looking to increase the current $6,195 maximum for a Pell Grant. Pell Grants do not have to be repaid and are available to all citizens over the age of 18. Awards vary based on need. Reed downplayed his role in creating the CPC, saying it was a “collaborative enterprise.” He also applauded the mission of the CPC and those striving for higher education as “one people with one voice coming together – that’ the spirit we’re celebrating today.”

RISLA Chair Robert Delaney pointed out that the advice of the CPC extends beyond advising students and their families on federal grants. He pointed out that student debt collectively surpasses that of home mortgages. CPC counselors help students and their families assess what they can afford in selecting a college or university and their level of borrowing.

The CPC has conducted 58 financial literacy seminars. Delaney also noted the role of school guidance counselors in working with the CPC.

Rhode Island College junior Shannon Simmons and her mother Darlene were among those gathered around the stage at the center of the mall. Shannon filled out a form to enter a raffle to win one of two $1,000 scholarships being offered as part of the 20th anniversary party. Shannon, who is studying to become a special education teacher with plans of eventually going into special education administration, said she has some student debt, which she is working to pay off. Both she and her mother said the CPC has been helpful and they visit it annually for assistance.

As for Shannon’s chances of winning one of the scholarships, that didn’t happen. But then there was cake, and who could resist that?

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