WARWICK — Gov. Dan McKee helped to remove one of the biggest barriers to higher education last week, offering a brighter future to graduating high school students all across the state.
On Friday, with the signing of his pen, McKee made the Rhode Island Promise program permanent.
For the past several years, the program has made higher education an affordable reality for recent high school graduates all across the Ocean State by providing up to two years of free tuition at the Community College of Rhode Island. In that time, the program has proven to be so much of a success that legislators worked to remove the initial bill’s sunset clause — which would have ended the promise with this year’s graduating class.
“An affordable, accessible college education is now a reality for so many graduating high school students,” McKee said at Friday’s bill signing. “Not just this year, but for years to come.”
The Rhode Promise would not have been possible without House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi (Dist. 23 — Warwick) and Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio (Dist. 4 — Providence, North Providence), according to the governor, and the many other legislators who threw their support behind the initiative.
“We are here today because the Rhode Island Promise works,” McKee said. “And we want to make sure it continues to work for our students.”
During its first two years, the Rhode Island Promise program helped to dramatically increase the rate at which high school graduates went off to college — jumping from 59 percent to 67 percent.
“That means more people who live in the state of Rhode Island have a better future,” the governor said. “And that means, with more students going to college, we’ll have a stronger economy to raise our families in all 39 cities and towns.”
It’s a great investment, according to McKee, because not only does it help students earn their degrees and get better jobs, it also helps strengthen the state’s economy.
Recent statistics suggest that in four years time, 70 percent of jobs in Rhode Island will require a college residence, according to CCRI Director of Communications and Marketing Amy Kempe. At the moment, only about 47 percent of working-age Rhode Islanders hold a college credential.
CCRI President Meghan Hughes was pleased to welcome so many guests to the Knight Campus in Warwick for the bill signing, calling it the most important day in the institution’s 57-year history.
“When I look around at our students, when I see our graduates and their families, I know just what a profound difference this scholarship is going to go on to make — to generations of Rhode Islanders,” she said.
Since the program’s inception, the school has been able to meaningfully increase both enrollment and graduation rates, according to Hughes.
In Fall 2016, CCRI had 1,100 students enrolled full-time straight out of high school. Five years later, the college has more than doubled that number.
“That’s the kind of accomplishment you rarely see,” Hughes said.
The number of Pell Grant students enrolled at CCRI more than doubled during that time, according to Hughes, and for students of color, the college saw even higher degrees of enrollment. The school quadrupled its two-year graduation, and saw five times as many low income and students of color earn their degrees.
“When I look around the room, I see so many champions of eliminating these equity gaps,” Hughes said. “We haven’t made it all the way. We have a lot of work to do.”
“We continue to have equity gaps,” she added, “but what I want to promise everyone in this room is that we’re committed to closing those. We’re just getting started.”
Rhode Island Promise graduate David Mota made a lasting impression on Hughes when she first met him at the start of his journey at CCRI.
Standing in the same room that would play host to the bill signing several years later, Hughes had watched Mota conversing with high school guidance counselors from across the state, trying to explain “what the impact of the Promise Scholarship was on him, and his family.”
“What I remember is, ‘This is a remarkable young person, who clearly has an extraordinary future, right here in Rhode Island,’” Hughes recalled.
That same bright, young man wasn’t always on the path to higher education, however.
“To be honest, I wasn’t always the greatest student, growing up,” Mota said. “I jumped from different schools in Pawtucket, and I was not on a path to college.”
The pieces didn’t start to come together for Mota until he was a senior of Davies Career and Technical High School, where he studied to become a CNA. He knew then that he wanted to pursue a career in the healthcare industry, but a college degree seemed too far out of reach.
“My family and I just couldn’t afford it,” Mota said. “Obstacles to pursue higher education are real — especially for first-generation students of color like me.”
“However, with a little bit of help and a whole lot of belief that I could be a successful college student, I stand before you as an example of what is possible,” he added.
At the moment, Mota is employed as a radiography technologist at Miriam Hospital while also working towards a bachelor’s degree in medical imaging management from Rhode Island College.
“The opportunity the Rhode Island Promise Program gave me changed my life, and my family’s life,” Mota said.
He wasn’t the only Rhode Island Promise student who got to witness the historic bill signing last week, though. Some of his fellow graduates, as well as current promise students, were watching over McKee’s shoulder, too.
Angie Escalante of Providence earned an associate degree in general business in 2019, and is now studying marketing at Johnson and Wales University — where she just finished her junior year. She has hopes of earning an MBA, and wants to continue on to a doctorate program afterwards.
She credits her time at CCRI for helping place her on this path, though.
“This is definitely the foundation that ignited my spark to continue my education,” Escalante said. “Honestly, I grew up in a low income part of Providence, went to every single low-income Title I school.”
As the child of immigrants and a first generation college student, she faced plenty of barriers to higher education.
“It’s not easy to pay for college,” Escalante said. “Everyone usually pulls out loans, but that wasn’t an option for me.”
Brian Imena, who received his bachelor’s from the University of Rhode Island last weekend, is hoping to put his degrees in mathematics to good use.
“I actually want to teach math — hopefully at the community college level,” Imena said. “Maybe I’ll end up teaching math here one day, and come full circle.”
He had a great experience at both public universities, and those experiences have inspired him to continue on to a master’s program.
Another Rhode Island Promise graduate, Kellsie King of Cranston, also went on to pursue a bachelor’s at URI, where she is currently studying political science, with a minor in journalism.
During her time at CCRI, King was able to serve as editor of the school’s newspaper — The Unfiltered Lense — where she was able to discuss the Rhode Island Promise program with former Gov. Gina Raimondo on multiple occasions.
“I did so many great things, I had so many great professors, and I had such a great time,” King reminisced on her time at CCRI.
In high school, when King had shared her post-graduation plans with fellow classmates, some were quick to express elitist attitudes towards a community college education, but her experience hasn’t been anything but top notch. It also took a huge financial burden off her and her family.
National student loan debt reached an all-time high in 2020, according to the Federal Reserve, topping out at $1.67 trillion. And according to the Institute for College Access & Success, In 2019, 62 percent of graduates left school with student loan debt. The average student loan debt among these graduates was nearly $29,000.
While most of the Rhode Island Promise student attendees had already moved past their time at CCRI, Talia Thibodeau of Cranston participated in the ceremonies after just finishing her freshman year.
At the moment, Thibodeau is studying communications, which she believes will serve her well no matter where she goes in life.
“I’ve had so many great opportunities and so many experiences,” Thibodeau said. “Everyone I’ve met has been wonderful, and it’s been a really, really great experience for me.”
While the day was mostly a celebration of the students, and the bright futures now in front of them, Speaker Shekarchi took a few minutes to recognize the instrumental role the former governor played in making this possible.
“Success has many fathers, but the mother of this success was Gina Raimondo,” according to Shekarchi, and she continued to work hard for the program right up until she left for Washington, D.C. to serve as President Joe Biden’s Secretary of Commerce.
Before her departure, Raimondo had sat down with Shekarchi and Ruggerio to request they make the program permanent, stating that it was important for all Rhode Islanders that we have an educated workforce.
“I want to say congratulations governor — now secretary — on a job well done,” Shekarchi said. “This will be part of your legacy, which you leave Rhode Island.”
He also expressed thanks to the current governor for his support, as well as the many representatives who overwhelmingly voted in support of the Rhode Island Promise Program. He specifically highlighted the House Finance Subcommittee on Education Chairman Rep. Gregg Amore (Dist. 65 —East Providence), House Education Committee Chair Rep. Joseph M. McNamara (Dist. 19 — Warwick, Cranston) and Deputy Majority Leader William W. O’Brien (Dist. 54 — North Providence), who he often turns to for advice on education issues.
Passing this bill was truly a team effort, though, and it wouldn’t have been possible without widespread support from an overwhelming majority of his colleagues.
“By removing financial barriers to education, we do a number of things — we support families, we help Rhode Islanders land better jobs, we make our workforce more attractive to employees and we strengthen our economy,” said Shekarchi
And as many of the graduate attendees demonstrated, the Rhode Island Promise isn’t the finish line but only a first step for many students who go on to continue their education afterwards.