The Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) is a microcosm of some of the biggest challenges shaping higher education.
For one, the 55-year-old institution is in New England, an area experts predict will be hit hard by looming enrollment declines. And on top of that, the state of Rhode Island has not returned its support for higher education to pre-recession levels.
Even so, CCRI graduated its largest class ever and brought its two-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time students up to 18% in the 2018-19 academic year after it historically hovered around 4%, officials told Education Dive. Moreover, the college saw a big jump in the two-year graduation rate of students of color, from around 2% historically to 12% this year.
Officials credit those achievements to several large initiatives underway.
Among them is the Rhode Island Promise program, which allows high school graduates to receive free community college tuition if they enroll full time. Another is a partnership with technology firm Infosys, which launched a design and innovation center near one of CCRI's campuses to help prepare students for careers in technology fields.
Since 2016, Meghan Hughes has been at the helm of CCRI, helping to push forward a new vision for the college. "I predict we will deliver on a commitment I made when interviewing for the job," she said, "which was within five years of my arrival we would not simply be the largest community college in New England, we would be the best."
Education Dive sat down with Hughes earlier this summer to discuss how she plans to achieve that goal, and how she's measured her progress nearly four years into the job.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
EDUCATION DIVE: What accomplishments or efforts are you most excited about so far during your time at CCRI?
HUGHES: We were not pioneers in the community college reform movement in this country. When I arrived three and a half years ago, we brought real urgency to that work and had the great benefit of casting our gaze across the U.S. and studying community colleges that are years ahead of us to borrow what they've done, adapt it for our own purposes and take it quickly to scale.
We implemented a master schedule, which resolved hundreds of scheduling conflicts and allows students to get their classes at the times they need. We brought multi-measures into our college. We brought co-requisite remediation into the English department and took that to scale. And with math, we suspended a delivery model that had been running for nearly 50 years and brought a new form of delivery, called the Math Emporium.
We've begun to implement guided pathways. That's a longer play; that will be 10 years to be fully baked in. And the Rhode Island Promise has come to CCRI.
The Rhode Island Promise was rolled out in 2017. What have been the results at your institution so far?
We've seen a little bit more than a doubling in our overall enrollment of that cohort, which is first-time, full-time students straight from high school. We've also seen 143% growth with our low-income students and 164% growth with our students of color.
The program is last-dollar, covering tuition only after all other grants and aid have been applied. How do you remain accessible to students who may have trouble affording textbooks, transportation and other costs?
In the program's inaugural year, we secured the largest private gift in the college's history — $650,000 from the Hassenfeld Family Foundation. It's a philanthropic family that launched Hasbro and believes in Rhode Island and community colleges. That investment allowed us to provide additional financial support for our Pell-eligible students to ensure they could have the essentials they need to learn and graduate.
We are also going to need to dramatically grow our endowment to continue our rate of performance improvement, so we have launched a six-year campaign in which we're going to raise $25 million by 2025. When we do that, we will have at least $1 million to spend on our students for the essentials that you named.
A legislative effort to expand the program to adults recently failed. What do you hope happens next?
Well, I'm a college president, so I'm going to want free college to be available to every single Rhode Islander who wants a shot at it.
What I'll say is this: it's brand new nationally. We were fourth in the country to bring Rhode Island Promise to our full-time, straight-out-of-high-school students. I am hopeful that when we deliver our report next summer about the first three years of the promise program that we're able to demonstrate with data and stories just how impactful it has been.
Some parts of the country, including New England, are facing demographic declines that are expected to accelerate in the coming years. How are you preparing for that?
We recently graduated the largest class in the history of the college, and we didn't do that with record enrollment. Those days passed about nine years ago, at the height of the Great Recession.
So what are we doing? We are focused on remaining intensely affordable by keeping our tuition within Pell Grant limits and working with that as our absolute outer bound. We are committed to being very responsive to where Rhode Island's economy is now and where it's going. We're also committed to being deeply and profoundly student-centric.
How do you prioritize efforts and avoid initiative fatigue?
This is not work for the faint of heart. It demands a frank recognition and acknowledgment that we have an equity imperative and have not nearly begun to deliver on it. Our work requires relentless energy and real urgency. Our students don't have time to wait for us to figure this out.
We have had to be highly focused and deliberate on what we do. The pioneers — the folks who were first trying to move from an access initiative to an access and completion mission — were really experimenting and trying and failing. While I am certain we will have plenty of our own failures, one of the things we didn't have to do was guess at what the fundamentals were. We know what the fundamentals are because there are institutions that have been at this for the better part of 20 years.