Warwick, R.I. — Rhode Island is known for sailing regattas, old-money mansions, the Ivy League Brown University and the nuptials of President John and Jackie Kennedy.
But the nation's smallest state is also the home of the late U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell, a Democrat whose work in education legislation led to the federal low-income college tuition grants now named after him, and Pell grants are still being awarded to scores of low-income college students today.
It's not immune to poverty or young people whose parents don't have a college education.
The Rhode Island Promise was created in 2017 to offer a tuition-free path to an associate degree for first-time, full-time high school students.
As Rhode Island officials were building the program and trying to find ways that low-income and first-generation students would succeed, they looked to a Detroit model that was showing early success.
The Detroit Promise Path offered a college coach and a $50 monthly stipend in addition to free tuition for high school students to attend community college, because the Detroit Promise, a free tuition program, was not leading to enough students staying enrolled and earning degrees or certificates.
Early reports from a study of the Detroit Promise Path by social research firm MDRC showed some early success with more students enrolled full-time and more returning for their second semester.
Despite a report unveiled Thursday that Detroit's program is not leading to more credentials, officials say the Rhode Island Promise is showing success. But experts say it's not fair to compare the two programs.
Meghan Hughes, president of the Community College of Rhode Island, said the early report of Detroit's success was encouraging because American community college students are typically low-income, first-generation college students who need support to persist and graduate.
When Hughes and her colleagues were creating the Rhode Island Promise with legislative funding, they sought philanthropic funding to provide additional services to support low-income students and those who were the first in their families to go to college. They created another program known as Rhode Island Promise Plus. The program is similar to Detroit's Promise Path and assigns students a counselor, sets five milestones for a student to reach throughout the year and an incentive of $100 for each milestone reached.
The program is outperforming Detroit's. Rhode Island's graduation rate for first-time, full-time students in 2020 rose 127% to 475 students compared to 2016 when 209 students graduated the year before the Rhode Island Promise programs began.
"If you can get a brand new college student who is the first in their family to go to college with their feet underneath them in their first semester, you dramatically increase the likelihood they are going to persist and go on to be successful," Hughes said.
The Rhode Island Promise is simple, practical and requires students to have a plan and create a path for the future, Hughes said. It also builds a connection between a counselor and student to help them figure out the college culture.
"I can't overstate how important that is," Hughes said. "Demystifying college is crucial."
Hughes, along with other Rhode Island officials, declined to speculate on why Rhode Island's program results were better than those in Detroit.
But Michelle Miller-Adams, a senior researcher studying the free college movement at the Upjohn Institute in Kalamazoo, said comparing the programs in Detroit and Rhode Island is like comparing apples to oranges since Detroit's program was rigorously evaluated by the MDRC to see if intrusive coaching led to successful outcomes. But there is no evidence showing what led to Rhode Island's success.
“The Rhode Island Promise is getting excellent results that reflect the combination of the free tuition, the supports offered and the public messaging of the program, but it’s hard to figure out which are moving the dial in the absence of a rigorous evaluation,” said Miller-Adams.
Additionally, the Rhode Island Promise programs are for students statewide, so Miller-Adams said they would include low-income students as well as middle-income students while Detroit Promise serves mostly low-income students.
"Detroit Promise's pipeline has a higher proportion of poor students in it than the Rhode Island Promise," Miller-Adams said.
Rhode Island's median household income is $67,167 and about 11% of residents live in poverty, census figures show. By contrast, Detroit's median household income is less than half Rhode Island's, at $30,894, and the poverty rate is 35%, or more than three times higher than Rhode Island's.
In 2017, the program's first year, 1,584 students enrolled in the Rhode Island Promise programs. Of those, 800, or about half, were enrolled in the Promise Plus program.
Research and data analysis done by the Community College of Rhode Island's Office of Institutional Research and Assessment shows the program has more than doubled the number of students enrolled at the college and more than doubled the number of low-income and students of color who have enrolled.
The college's research also showed that three-year graduation rates increased from 19% in 2016, before the Rhode Island Promise, to 30% by 2020. For students of color and low-income students, the three-year graduation rates increased 2.6% and 1.7%, respectively, when compared to Rhode Island students enrolled in 2016.
"We thought, what could we do here that would drive the same outcomes, work the same way and support students in being successful?" said Sara Enright, vice president for student affairs and chief outcomes officer at the Community College of Rhode Island.
The Rhode Island Promise program is delivering strong outcomes because it is making college affordable and requiring students to enroll immediately after high school with a full load of classes, said Enright. The college also has launched other initiatives to boost student success including year-round courses and expanded counseling.
Since implementing Detroit's strategies, Hughes said there has been "a radical improvement" among the very students that the college considers an imperative to serve — low-income and first-generation students and students of color. Those students are enrolling, staying and graduating in a trend that Hughes said can directly be linked to the promise program that offers extra support.
The state needs to have 70% of its population armed with a post-secondary credential for future jobs. Right now, just 46% do and the gap is most acute between people of color and those who are low-income.
"The (Rhode Island) Promise is the single most important program that we've seen brought into this college to dramatically improve access and completion rates for our low-income students and students of color," Hughes said.