In first year of free college program, CCRI sees big spike in students on track to graduate

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The number of students who remained on track to graduate following their first semester at the Community College of Rhode Island rose sharply in the first year of the state’s free college program, but school officials acknowledge that hundreds of students are at risk of losing their scholarships if they don’t catch up.

Figures provided by CCRI show 14.6% of the 1,577 freshmen – 231 students – who entered the college straight from high school last fall completed 15 credits and maintained a 2.5 grade point average during their first semester, up from less than 1% the year before.

The college said 1,000 students received at least partial funding through the Rhode Island Promise scholarship, which covers two years of tuition and fees for all first-year, straight-from-high-school students at CCRI. Another 500 students were eligible for the full federal Pell Grant of $5,920, which more than covers the cost to attend CCRI each year.

“We’re in the early days,” Sara Enright, the college’s vice president of student affairs and chief outcomes officer, told Eyewitness News. “I neither want to take credit for the early wins nor do we want to get too concerned.”

Enright said the Promise program has brought a “new sense of energy” to CCRI campuses across the state, in part because nearly 500 additional students enrolled at the college last fall. Roughly 83% of Promise cohort remained enrolled at CCRI for a second semester. Enright said the school is preparing for about 2,000 new freshmen to enroll at the school in September.

But like most community colleges throughout the country, Enright said many CCRI students face challenges that make it more difficult to earn an associate degree in two years. She said approximately two-thirds of all new CCRI students need to take at least some remedial courses before earning credit toward a degree. Many students are the first in their families to attend college and some are working more than 30 hours a week in addition to attending school, she said.

The Promise scholarship’s guidelines are another barrier. While most federal education aid requires students to maintain a 2.0 GPA and complete two-thirds of all credit hours attempted, students who fail to maintain a 2.5 GPA and earn 30 college credits will not be eligible for a second year of the state scholarship.

Enright said the GPA and credit requirements – enacted by the General Assembly – do not a provide “an enormous amount of flexibility” for students, but college officials are encouraging students at risk of the losing their scholarship to take summer courses in order to catch up.

No one from CCRI has publicly asked state lawmakers to amend the program’s requirements.

It was not immediately clear how many of the 231 students who are on track to graduate in two years are receiving the Promise scholarship. The state funding is meant to be a last-dollar scholarship, which means students are required to exhaust other non-loan forms of student aid before the state covers the rest of the tuition. For students receiving a full Promise award, the state spends $2,074 per semester.

Because community colleges typically analyze student performance based on graduation rates after two and three years, Enright said it is difficult to compare the Promise cohort’s outcomes after one semester to other states.

But while she acknowledged the school has plenty of room for improvement, Enright said she’s confident Rhode Island is in a “strong starting place” based on the Promise program.

“For sure the outcomes are going to be better than what we’ve seen at this college,” she said.

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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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