More Rhode Islanders Are Earning Four-Year College Degrees

Rhode Island saw an almost 4% increase in bachelor’s degrees in 2022, according to new national data.

Graduates are shown at the University of Rhode Island’s College of Health Sciences Commencement Ceremony on Saturday, May 20, 2023, at the Ryan Center on the Kingston campus. (Janine L. Weisman/Rhode Island Current)

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You might call it a bachelor party: Rhode Island saw an almost 4% increase in bachelor’s degrees in 2022, according to new national data from a higher education foundation.

“We did not see this much increase in any other state’s bachelor’s degrees,” said Courtney Brown, vice president of impact and planning for the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation. “And it looks like it’s been going up over the last few years. Sometimes, especially in smaller states, it could be a fluke. Maybe it’s a one-year blip. But when I look at the data from 2017 to 2022, the data have been growing pretty tremendously.”

The foundation focuses on postsecondary attainments — which includes bachelor’s degrees, associate degrees and other post-high-school certifications or certificates. Since 2009, Lumina has tracked the trend of state-led goals for attainment, with a nationwide goal of 60% attainment by 2025.

Rhode Island’s overall attainment rate is 56.7% — still a ways from the 70% goal for 2025, proposed in 2017 during the administration of former Gov. Gina Raimondo. With 2025 a not-so-distant horizon anymore, the state’s new finish line is 70% postsecondary attainment by 2030, according to a presentation by Shannon Gilkey, the state’s commissioner of postsecondary education, at a Feb. 7 hearing before the Senate Committee on Education.

Rhode Island’s degree-toting population has quietly climbed in number since 2017, Brown noted: “People sometimes think, ‘You know, maybe that’s because there are more people with certificates or certifications.’ But that’s not true in Rhode Island. All of the change has been on degrees.”

While associate degrees haven’t changed much — 8.4% attainment in 2017 versus 8.1% in 2022 — bachelor’s degrees have seen a meteoric rise, especially among people aged 25 to 34. This demographic’s baccalaureates rose from 23.7% in 2017 to 32.5% in 2022.

“A 10-percentage point increase over five years is attributable to something that’s happening in the higher ed system,” Brown said. “There are practical policies that had to have been put in place years ago, to help more people get into and complete a bachelor’s degree…None of this was overnight.”

From a national vantage point, it wasn’t immediately clear to Brown what fostered the change. She estimated these structural changes may have taken place about a decade ago. The numbers are also something of a mystery to education commissioner Gilkey, whose presentation at last week’s committee hearing featured the Lumina data.

“We still need to have a deeper understanding about what’s really happening underneath the hood, if you will, of this attainment goal and progress towards that attainment goal,” Gilkey testified.

One factor might be the founding of the Promise scholarship in 2017. It helps students attend the Community College of Rhode Island tuition-free, easing access to a four-year degree if a student decides to pursue that path.

“[A transfer] helps with affordability,” Brown said. “I can more affordably complete a two-year [degree] so I only have to think about financing two years of the four year degree.”

The Lumina Foundation’s data paints a generally positive picture of postsecondary education stateside — after all, Rhode Island was only at 42% attainment in 2009 — but it’s not pollyannaish. Brown noted that Rhode Island’s recent successes aren’t excused from the usual disparities involving access and race.

“There’s a slight decline in the Black attainment population, which makes me wonder if a number of people who identify as Black Americans have left Rhode Island,” Brown said.

Black Rhode Islanders went from 34.7% attainment of associate-or-higher degrees in 2021 to 31% attainment in 2022. The Hispanic population’s attainment rose from 22.9% to 25.8% in that same time period.

Several states like Utah, Colorado and Massachusetts have reached the 60% goal. Washington, D.C. — a typical outlier — is highest, with 75.4% of its population holding a postsecondary credential.

But numbers only tell so much of the story: Education after high school, Brown noted, is about more than diplomas.

“It’s not just about increasing the number of people with bachelor’s degrees,” she said. “[People] want bachelor’s degrees that can get…a good job and a good life.”

Nationwide results, including Rhode Island, are available in Lumina’s “A Stronger Nation” report.

Rhode Island Current is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Rhode Island Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Janine L. Weisman for questions: info@rhodeislandcurrent.com. Follow Rhode Island Current on Facebook and Twitter.

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