CCRI boosts student retention in 2nd year of free college program

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Nearly two-thirds of students who entered the Community College of Rhode Island straight from high school in the fall of 2017 are still enrolled, but few are on track to earn a college degree by the end of their second year, according to newly-released data from the college.

The 62% fall-to-fall retention rate for the first cohort of students eligible for a Rhode Island Promise scholarship equals the national average, after years of CCRI lagging far behind. Out of the 1,577 new high school graduates who started at CCRI last fall, 22% earned at least 30 college credits in their first year, well above the national average.

“This is a marginal additional investment in this college and in higher education with a dramatic increase in results,” Sara Enright, the college’s vice president of student affairs and chief outcomes officer, told reporters Monday.

All students who graduate from high school in Rhode Island and directly enter CCRI are eligible for a Promise scholarship, which covers the cost of tuition and fees for two years as long as students earn a 2.5 grade point average and 15 credits per semester. The program is considered a last-dollar scholarship, so students are required to exhaust all other forms of non-loan federal aid before the state covers the balance.

CCRI considers all 1,577 students who entered the college from high school in 2017 as members of the Promise cohort, but officials say only 1,000 received at least partial funding through the program last year; some low-income students had their tuition and fees covered completely by the federal Pell grant. Enright said the state spent $3 million on tuition and fees last year and expects to spend $6 million in the current school year now that the program has two cohorts of students.

Enright said the first cohort of Promise students nearly quadrupled the rate of CCRI students who were on track to graduate in two years, growing from 6% the year before the program was created to 22% this year. The national average is 12%. Community college graduation rates are typically tracked on three-year schedules, but the Promise scholarship is only available for two years.

Asked what CCRI is doing to increase graduation rates, Enright said advisors have regularly been in contact with students in the Promise cohort. She said students are sent emails updating them on their status and encouraging them to catch up if they fall behind.

Enright acknowledged not every student who returned for a second year at CCRI is eligible for a Promise scholarship, as some may have lost their state aid by earning fewer than 30 credits or achieving lower than a 2.5 GPA in their first year. Federal grants typically come with lower academic standards than the Promise program requires.

Students receiving in-state tuition at CCRI will pay $2,074 per semester plus around $200 fees in the current school year. Enright said the college expects its second cohort of students will be larger than the first, growing to between 2,000 and 2,100 this year.

She said she would like to see the scholarship extended from four semesters to five, which would mirror the program offered in Tennessee. But her top priority is convincing the General Assembly to fund the program beyond its current four-year pilot phase, she said.

The new figures were released a day before Gov. Gina Raimondo scheduled a roundtable discussion with Promise students in their second year of school. Raimondo, a Democrat, has said she wants to expand to program to include Rhode Island College and the University of Rhode Island if she is re-elected in November.

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Dan McGowan (dmcgowan@wpri.com) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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