The entering freshman class at the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) for fall 2017 includes the first beneficiaries of a new program that offers free tuition to RI residents who in 2017 either were graduated from high school (public, private or homeschooled) or completed the General Educational Development (GED) test while younger than 19 years old. Students who begin the program can continue tuition-free for four semesters, enough to earn an associate degree, as long as they enroll full-time each semester, complete at least 30 credits per year and maintain at least a 2.5 GPA (on a 4.0 scale).
The new free-tuition guarantee is an extension of the RI Promise scholarship program begun by Governor Gina Raimondo in 2015 and administered by the RI Office of the Postsecondary Commissioner that oversees the three state institutions of higher education, the University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College and CCRI. There was no specific application process, and students who submitted their unified Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) by the usual March 1 deadline in RI were automatically evaluated for eligibility and, if qualified, offered scholarships that could be accepted via an electronic attestation form on the CCRI website.
Raimondo has made the RI Promise scholarships a major priority, perhaps the defining priority, of her administration. “When I was a kid, you could graduate from high school and get a good job with a good salary to support a family. But that’s not the case anymore. In Rhode Island, it’s estimated that by 2020, seven out of every 10 [new] jobs will require some kind of education beyond high school. But right now, less than 45% of Rhode Islanders have that,” the governor told Motif. “This is also an economic development issue. Businesses want to be where they can hire good, talented people. Rhode Island already has a strong foundation in higher education – but college needs to be more affordable. According to RI Department of Education surveys of high school seniors, 90% of graduating students want to go to college, but only 65% actually do. And the number one reason students cite for not going to college is money.” The governor referenced her previous efforts improving college affordability, including making the SAT and PSAT free for RI high school juniors and seniors, and allowing students at participating public and charter high schools to take college courses for credit at no cost through the Advanced Course Network. “The Rhode Island Promise Scholarship was the next logical step in our work to increase opportunity for Rhode Island students,” she said.
Sara Enright, vice president for Student Services and “chief outcomes officer” at CCRI, said that the cohort of RI resident, recent high school graduates entering as full-time students increased to nearly 1,400 for the fall 2017 semester compared to about 950 last year in fall 2016, “almost 50% growth… which we view as just a huge positive. It adds to our community to have many more students here full-time and we think it’s a win for the state to just be getting more students into the system. Early on it looks great and I think we’ll be really shifting our focus to making sure that those students are successful here.”
Most CCRI students qualify for other grant aid (that is, which does not have to be repaid like a loan), especially federal Pell Grants, and the RI Promise “last dollar” grant kicks in only after other eligibility has been exhausted: The net effect is that the free-tuition guarantee to the student is met at minimum cost to the state. Enright said that the 1,400 count includes “students who may actually have their entire education covered by the federal Pell Grant,” and who, therefore, would require no state funding from the RI Promise scholarship. Enright said that the “percentage of students in this cohort who are Pell Grant recipients, which is sort of a proxy for low income, [is] nearly identical” from last year to this year.
The total eligible population of 2017 high school graduates who could have applied for the program was “under 10,000,” Enright said. Asked whether the offer of free tuition could be cannibalizing students who would have attended another state school, Enright said there were plans to measure that in the future but that “anecdotally, having talked to our colleagues at URI and at RIC,” those numbers were very small, about two to three students who would have attended URI and 10 to 12 students who would have attended RIC. “I would say it has been an overwhelming success in doing exactly what we wanted it to do, which was bring more students into college and get more students going full-time.”
Rosemary Costigan, vice president for Academic Affairs at CCRI, said that the school was prepared for the large influx without any sacrifice of academic quality. “We have a very active adjunct pool, we have very qualified faculty full-time, and we have been at this number before. Over the last couple of years, CCRI, like many colleges around the nation, has experienced some downward trend in enrollment, and so we have been able to meet the standard and meet the demand… It did require our department chairs working diligently all summer with our deans to respond to what our advisors were saying were the high-demand courses and ensure that they were available for these students when they arrived.” Costigan said she has been adding teaching staff: “There is a cap in terms of the institution itself. We’ve just hired approximately 30 new full-time faculty, and this is one of the biggest hiring phases that we’ve gone through in recent years for full-time faculty.”
Enright also echoed the governor’s concerns that “as a state we look at our 40-some-odd percent college attainment rate and we look at a future job market that demands 60% or 70% post-secondary education, and we say we’ve got to close that gap. I think you have to be closing it with every population you can look at, and one of those populations is these students who are coming straight out of high school where we have a lot of room to grow. If you look at some of our larger districts, I think the most recent data, the Providence Public School District has a less than 50% college sending rate when you look at the fall right after high school graduation, I think – I could be wrong – it’s 46% or 48% of Providence public school graduates end up in college that fall. When we look at producing more college graduates, we’ve got to do a couple of things: We’ve got to get more people into the system and through the system, and I think this is going to support both of those.”
This biggest change resulting from the free tuition program is, Enright said, “a significant shift in the number of students who are choosing to attend full-time right after high school” as opposed to part-time. “It increases the odds that they move through more quickly, but it fundamentally increases the odds that they stay. We’ve seen much higher retention rates with full-time students because they’re just that much more engaged in their college experience,” Enright said. “If you look at a timeline of four and six years, what often happens with community college students is they show up full-time and then due to financial and other challenges they move down to part-time and their journey is stretched out… If you look six years out, 60% of the students have either graduated, transferred, or they’re still here. What we’re really trying to do as an institution is shorten that time horizon, and I think this program is going to be a significant help in doing so.”
Both Enright and Costigan started their vice presidencies on the same day, February 1, 2016, they said, and are just now putting innovations into effect that they have been planning for some time.
“A huge piece of this is the vast majority of our students are first-generation college students. There’s an enormous amount of decision-making that goes into that, and coaching and support that will help a student along, so we’re increasing our advising staff to support that,” Enright said.
Costigan said that “accelerated learning pathways” had been introduced so that students who needed a “developmental” course to prepare for a college-level gateway course “would have the option of taking both courses in tandem during the same semester, therefore cutting down a semester of coursework.” She said, “The research and the pilots that have been done nationally have shown very, very good outcomes with this, and our early data is also showing the same thing, that these students are successfully completing.
“I have been a faculty member and administrator here for 19 years at the college – and also a graduate of the college nearly 40 years ago from the nursing program, so I have a long history of affiliation with the Community College of Rhode Island through faculty roles, administrative roles, and then over the past 18 months in the capacity of vice president for Academic Affairs,” Costigan said. “We are very fortunate to have many alumni and I think it is a testament to the strength of this institution, one that is relatively young in academia just a little bit over 50 years old… [we] would have an alumnus in the second position in terms of chief academic officer… I am very, very proud that I had the opportunity to attend this institution and it gave me a gateway all the way to a Ph.D. and the top of my field, and this is what it offers to every student who walks through our doors.”
Enright emphasized that the free tuition program, although only a few weeks old now, contemplates the long term. “The legislation has this slated as a four-year program for the classes of 2017, ‘18, ‘19, and ‘20, so as a college we are optimistic the state will want to continue to invest in this program beyond that time horizon, and certainly aware that it’s on us to prove that we can really make this work and make good on the state’s investment. We certainly believe that these young people deserve an opportunity and are capable of being very strong contributors both as ongoing students at our four-year institutions and as members of the work force in Rhode Island in the future. We think it’s a very good investment and we recognize that we’ve got to support these students through to graduation, and through to transfer in many cases.”
CCRI is already making plans for fall 2018 entering freshmen. Their free tuition is already guaranteed to be funded, confirmed Catherine Rolfe, deputy press secretary to Governor Raimondo.
Enright said, “Classes are underway so the [fall 2017] window of opportunity has closed, but we really want students who are seniors in high school or in a GED program right now to know that this opportunity exists for a few more years and they should really be taking advantage of it. The sooner students start, the better off they will be.”