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PROVIDENCE – In the months since the first group of students receiving free tuition to the Community College of Rhode Island completed its second year of classes, officials who backed the Rhode Island Promise scholarship program have had good reason to boast.

The two-year graduation rate at the college hit 19 percent this year, tripling its historical average of 6 percent and putting it above the national average. Enrollment has surged, especially for minority students.

But even as CCRI President Meghan Hughes and Governor Gina Raimondo, another of the program’s supporters, celebrate the program’s initial accomplishments, Hughes acknowledges the college still has more work to do when it comes to raising graduation rates for the low-income students the free tuition program was designed to help.

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Indeed, of the 505 students whose family incomes were low enough that they qualified for a full federal Pell grant to attend CCRI, only 46 graduated within two years, a rate of 9 percent.

“It’s not good enough yet, but I would describe it as a good start,” Hughes said in a telephone interview.

Raising the graduation rate among poor students isn’t as easy or as simple as offering free tuition.

Those students often come from household situations that require them to work or watch their siblings while they attend school. And the state doesn’t cover expenses for books, transportation or food, all factors that can become barriers for students with little disposable income.

Hughes said the college has sought to raise private money to better support low-income students, including $650,000 from the Hassenfeld Family Foundation. That money is earmarked for promise students who are seeking help to cover other college expenses.

Hughes said the cost of college in general and the role community colleges can play is deserving of a broader national conversation, but she suggested CCRI is doing its best within the constraints of its budget.

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“When we raised private gifts, we’ve chosen to target [low-income] students,” she said.

State lawmakers agreed to establish the Rhode Island Promise scholarship in 2017, allowing all new high school graduates from the state to attend CCRI for free for two years. Raimondo, failed to convince the General Assembly to expand the program to adult students at CCRI or juniors and seniors at Rhode Island College this year.

Like many “promise” programs around the country, Rhode Island’s program is known as last-dollar scholarship. That means students are required to secure federal grants before the state covers the rest of the tuition tab.

The first Rhode Island Promise class consisted of 1,584 students, and 759 of them received full funding from the state. The rest had their tuition split between the state and the Pell grant, or received a full Pell grant.

The two-year graduation rate among students who received only state support for tuition was 26 percent and 19 percent for those who received partial funding from the state. For full Pell grant recipients, the graduation rate fell into the single digits.

Still, Hughes maintains the college has seen “radical performance improvement” since the promise program took effect, even among low-income students. She noted that students of color raised their two-year graduation rates from 2 percent to nearly 13 percent since the scholarship started.

Hughes and other state leaders have said the very idea of “free college” has led to an increase in enrollment. The college expects to spend about $7 million this year on the program, which includes tuition and more support for students.

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While supporters of the Rhode Island Promise scholarship sold it as a way to help students from urban school districts attend college, state Representative Gregg Amore, an East Providence Democrat, said he has always viewed the program as one that would benefit families with higher incomes.

Amore, who works as the athletic director at East Providence High School, said his school has seen a 15 percent increase in the number of students attending CCRI since the scholarship was created. Students who might have ordinarily attended a four-year school like Rhode Island College are opting for the better deal at CCRI, he said.

“I looked at it as a middle class program and I still think it is,” Amore said.

Around the country, last-dollar scholarship programs have faced the same challenges as Rhode Island is having. But some communities have opted to establish wraparound services for students or provide grants for non-tuition costs, according to Jennifer Mishory, a senior fellow and senior policy advisor for The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank based in New York and Washington, D.C. to that focuses on reducing inequality.

In Detroit, promise scholarship recipients are matched with a coach that helps keep them on track while they are in college. Students receive a $50 gift card each month if they continue to attend meetings with their coach.

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In Oregon, promise students are eligible for $1,000 grant if their tuition is covered by other sources, like the Pell grant.

“That makes it a more expensive program,” Mishory acknowledged. But it also helps to address some of the equity challenges colleges face.

For now, Hughes said she is focusing on an ambitious goal: a 50 percent graduation rate. Few community colleges in the country have been reached that level of success, but Hughes said it is possible if students are provided with the right support.

“We are going to hit that [goal] and community colleges in America better start hitting that,” Hughes said.


Dan McGowan can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.