By ARDEN BASTIA The RI Promise scholarship has helped over 7,300 students, but the future of the program remains uncertain for the high school class of 2021. Meghan Hughes, president of the Community College of Rhode Island, wants to keep the doors of
The RI Promise scholarship has helped over 7,300 students, but the future of the program remains uncertain for the high school class of 2021.
Meghan Hughes, president of the Community College of Rhode Island, wants to keep the doors of higher education open even as financial pressures may make that difficult. She is passionate about the RI Promise program, and sees it as an invaluable resource for RI students.
“We don’t have separate campuses for separate students. We have one community college, and it’s open access. We welcome everyone. And our successes serve every last student. Without question, we have catalyzed the college process,” she said.
In an interview last Friday requested by the college, Hughes bluntly stated that without future funding for the program, the high school class of 2021 could be the last.
The RI Promise program – two years of free CCRI tuition based on performance – assists all students, regardless of background, but has an important impact on those who are historically left behind and often left out of the college conversation. Students are welcomed into the Promise cohort if they are first-time, full-time college students and recent high school graduates.
According to Hughes, the success of the program is based on two factors – access and completion. As she puts it, “What are we actually achieving in terms of enrollment? And how are we actually doing with graduating our students?”
In the fall of 2016, the fall prior to the launch of the RI Promise scholarship, the program welcomed 1,100 students. In 2017, that number rose to 1,584, and by 2018 it had more than doubled to include 2,337 students. Even in the wake of the COVID pandemic, enrollment numbers remain high, with an estimated 2,300 students coming in this fall.
Colleges and universities across the country faced a dip in enrollment numbers due to the pandemic. CCRI saw enrollment go down 7.4 percent, but according to Sara Enright, vice president of student affairs and chief outcomes officer for CCRI, that’s a win relative to what other schools saw.
“Just like with the virus itself, we’re all still trying to understand what’s happened here,” she said. “What we do know factually about our students at CCRI, their families, and their communities, is that they have been disproportionately impacted by both the virus and the recession.”
Despite these setbacks, CCRI has “unequivocally increased enrollment overall,” according to Hughes. “And unequivocally, we achieved stronger graduation rates than the college has historically achieved, in a way that I’m not sure even we could have hoped for.”
When the RI Promise program began in 2016, CCRI had a two-year graduation rate that hovered around 4 and 5 percent. Today, the two-year graduation rate has risen to 19 percent. “When we arrived,” Hughes said, “our accrediting body was watching the college and had put us on notice because our completion rate was so dreadfully behind even a national average. We were 50 percent below the national average, but now we’re 40 percent above.”
Hughes is the first to admit that their mission is far from accomplished, but is also the first to admit, “You’d be hard pressed to find this improvement in that period of time.”
Enright explained that the good news is more students than ever before are on a path to getting a degree. CCRI is on par with colleges nationwide in retaining students for a second and third year. “Once students come back for a second year, they’re farther along. We are seeing students come back [for a third year] because most of those young people want to continue, they all want to get a college degree, and therefore they’re going to keep going. No one is stopping at the two-thirds mark.”
Another bit of data that Hughes was proud to share is the increase in CCRI’s three-year graduation rate; a metric she says is the “most meaningful” for community colleges. Five years ago, when the RI Promise program was established, CCRI had a 15 percent three-year graduation rate. Now, that number has doubled to 30 percent.
“We achieved the highest graduating rate in 20 years. With fewer students coming in the door, we’re getting a higher proportion of them through to the graduation stage,” Hughes said.
But for all the successes of the RI Promise scholarship, its future is unknown. Since the General Assembly has been on recess since March when the COVID pandemic began, no votes have been taken on funding the RI Promise program. According to Enright, the initiative costs $7 million to operate.
Hughes explained that for every dollar the state has put behind the program, $1.34 of federal funding has come in for student aid. Hughes emphasized that she wants those federal dollars to come to Rhode Island. “This promise policy is the most impactful statewide policy to be rolled out in higher education.”
The good news is that students currently enrolled in the RI Promise program are covered under the pilot legislation. But Hughes pointed out that right now, high school seniors across the state are beginning to plan for fall 2021. Students and their families are debating whether college will be attainable, and Hughes worries about leaving them in the dark. “The sooner we can get clarity, the better. The sooner we get what I hope will be positive news, the better it will be for the planning.”
Hughes submitted a detailed report to the legislature this past spring asking for support behind making the promise program a permanent part of the state budget. “I’m an optimist,” she said. “I do believe in our legislature, I believe that our legislators understand how important education is and higher education is for their constituents.” The General Assembly has not announced a plan to meet or indicated when a vote may be taken, leaving the RI Promise program in limbo.
“I hope what you’re hearing from me is that our students are capable of just about anything, if you provide the right set of expectations and support,” Hughes said. “I could not be prouder of what this college had achieved.”