Even before COVID, college admission numbers have been on the slide. But armed with some forward-thinking programs, degree programs that everybody wants, and easier online education, Rhode Island colleges and universities are bucking the downward trend and keeping Rhode Island oh-so-solidly in the higher-ed game.
“I’m really excited! It’s such a great program!” says Maeve Palumbo, a 17-year-old Cranston High School East graduate who, in September, will become a Talent Development Scholar at the University of Rhode Island (URI). She will be one of about 330 scholars accepted into the program, which provides additional resources and support to these students. According to Debbie Suggs, URI’s director of special populations in the Office of Admission, Talent Development Scholars are “traditionally marginalized” – typically first-generation students of color, or students who otherwise come from backgrounds where the challenges of earning a four-year-college degree might have once seemed insurmountable.
In July, Palumbo will spend two weeks living on campus and attending classes to give her a sense of college curriculum. She’ll be afforded tutoring opportunities, extra advising, social occasions, and more, all designed to support her in earning a degree in education (she would like to follow in the footsteps of her parents, John and Jessica, both teachers). “I was a good student in high school,” Palumbo says, “better at writing and English than math and science. I applied to a couple of schools in Florida, but knowing I’d have some extra support made URI my first choice by far,” she says.
URI Talent Development has been a harbinger of the new and very necessary norm on Rhode Island college campuses. The program was born in the wake of the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination in 1968, designed to give students of color, or those from disadvantaged backgrounds a fair shot at college. “It is absolutely a model program,” says Suggs, that other colleges and universities have recently, and successfully, copied.
And it’s clear to see why. Nationally, statistics are grim. The Brookings Institution, a Washington, DC-based public policy research group, in June reported that college enrollment is down overall, especially at community colleges. Retention efforts aren’t working that well either, they said – fewer students are finishing college, and fewer are transferring to four-year colleges after finishing an associate degree. But here’s the thing – the drop has been occurring for more than a decade. From 2010 to 2021, Brookings reports, college enrollment dropped by an unprecedented 15 percent. The nose-dive has been fueled by rising tuition, generational attitudes toward traditional roles about education and careers, and slowed population growth. In March, a Wall Street Journal poll found that 56 percent of Americans no longer think a college degree is “worth the cost.”
That’s the bad news. The good? Rhode Island is beating those grim stats. The same Brookings article cited that while no Rhode Island college has escaped the downward trend, enrollment numbers here have held steady – much better than the national average. A Boston news outlet reported recently that Rhode Island is the 12th most educated state in the country, and the quality of education from a Rhode Island institution is high – fifth in the nation.
“There is still a benefit to attending college,” says Chris DiSano, a partner and vice president of client services at RDW Group in Providence. DiSano has led enrollment initiatives at colleges all over the country since 2014 (full disclosure: he is not currently representing any Rhode Island college in such initiatives) and says that the key to strong admissions numbers lies in the hands of each institution. “Schools have to know how to engage their audiences,” he explains, “so they can authentically demonstrate up front how a degree from that school will benefit over the course of a lifetime.” The best schools, DiSano explains, will listen to the community, stay mindful, and stay out in front of the trends, meeting them head on.
For some local schools, the post-COVID bounce back has been concocted by a recipe that DiSano might have written: programs focused on trade- and certificate-driven careers; recruiting underserved populations such as Black, Hispanic, and first-generation applicants; appealing to non-traditional populations such as older students who started but didn’t finish a degree; and making efforts at retention – giving students support while they are in school to keep them on the path to graduation.
Since COVID, the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) has rejoiced in strong admissions numbers. “We’re experiencing our fifth consecutive term-over-term comeback,” says Michael Parente, director of communications. In March CCRI announced four new certificate programs focusing on workforce training: court reporting, surgical technicians, mental health and wellness, and case management. “The modern student experience has to be personalized to the individual,” Parente says. “It’s our job to meet their needs.”
And so they all are. Bryant University in Smithfield has made “significant efforts to recruit a more diverse student body,” according to Edinaldo Tebaldi, executive director of strategic planning and institutional effectiveness. “The percentage of students of color has doubled in the last 20 years,” he reports, and “Bryant has seen a record number of applicants during the last two years – an increase of 36 percent. Our first-year classes of 2022 and 2023 are the largest classes in Bryant’s 160-year history.”
Providence College reports similar results from their strategic plan, which “has provided a roadmap for the admission office to stay ahead of the changing landscape of college admission,” says Raul A. Fonts, senior associate vice president and dean of admission and financial aid. “The addition of the new School of Nursing and Health Science has been a driving force in our growth this year, but our business school continues to be 40 percent of our undergraduate population. Our application pool grew by 12 percent this year,” he says.
At Salve Regina University in Newport, retention has been a major focus. “Our retention and graduation rates have increased precipitously over the last decade,” says James R. Fowler, the VP for enrollment management. “Our six-year graduation rate has increased by 13 percent in the last decade. The majority – 93 percent of students – complete their degrees in four years. Our retention rate this year is projected to be north of 85 percent, well above the national average.”
Rhode Island politicians have gotten behind the effort to make college more affordable, especially for non-traditional populations. Bolstered by the Rhode Island Department of Education’s initiative, Rhode Island Strategic Plan for Public Education: 2022-2027, URI, CCRI, and Rhode Island College (RIC) are supported in their efforts to close equity gaps, increase college affordably, help more adults attain degrees and certifications, and expand workforce training opportunities.
In 2021, Governor Dan McKee made the Rhode Island Promise Scholarship, a precursor to RIDE’s plan, permanent. The program, created in 2016 by then-Governor Gina Raimondo, makes tuition at CCRI free for students entering directly from a Rhode Island high school.
In June, RIC, the General Assembly, and McKee’s office announced a similar program. The Hope Scholarship will make the final two years of a four-year bachelor’s degree at RIC tuition-free for Rhode Island residents who meet the criteria, starting in the fall of 2023. “This will be a game-changer,” says RIC President Dr. Jack R. Warner, because “Rhode Island students will soon be able to get a high-quality, four-year degree for less than $25,000. We don’t think any other state in the country, let alone any other school, can say that.”
Warner feels an obligation to the state’s workforce, and he knows that RIC grads help sustain it. “According to a report by labor economist Paul Harrington, Rhode Island’s workforce is growing at a slower pace than any state in New England,” Warner says. “RIC is an economic engine for the state. We provide pathways to career success and economic opportunity for more Rhode Islanders, and not just at the bachelor’s level. Our robust graduate and terminal degree offerings are meeting crucial demands in Rhode Island.”
Warner knows that capital investments, recruitment initiatives, and new programs are necessary parts of the strategic puzzle. But as CCRI’s Parente notes, it’s about providing personalized support, and RIC gets that, as well. Micaela Daley, a 25-year-old East Greenwich resident who has been a case worker with Lifespan for three years, recently applied to RIC’s super-competitive Master of Social Work (MSW) program, ranked in the top 10 nationally. While her application was rejected in April, the program’s director of admissions, Paula Coutinho, invited Daley in for a meeting to discuss how she might strengthen her odds. “She really took the time to sit with me and explain how I could be a stronger candidate,” Daley recalls of the meeting. Coutinho suggested Daley take a class in the program as a non-matriculating student. If she does well, she can reapply to the program at no cost. “They didn’t just write me off,” Daley says. She will enroll in the fall for that class and hopes to reapply for the MSW early next year. Consider it all a kinder, gentler approach to the admissions process. And perhaps it’s been long overdue. Gone are the days of the form letter that wishes rejected students good luck in their “future endeavors.”
“The last 10 years have taught us a lot about how we anticipate the trends,” says Dean Libutti, associate vice president for enrollment and student success at URI. “We have to think about the whole student experience – give students a sense of place and identity,” he says. “That’s what it means to be a university these days. Ultimately, to evolve.”
Colleges and universities in Rhode Island regionally accredited by the New England Commission of Higher Education:
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