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In Rhode Island, VP Harris Will Promote American Families Plan

NOEL KING, HOST:

Rhode Island is one of at least 17 states that offer free community college. High school graduates can pursue a two-year degree at the Community College of Rhode Island tuition free. And that is why Talia Thibodeau enrolled.

TALIA THIBODEAU: It being free and being part of that Promise program absolutely played a huge role. And so it was kind of an easy choice to make.

KING: It's called the Promise program. Talia is still in her first year, but she's thinking about the future.

THIBODEAU: My dream, I guess you could say, is to do something with sports communications, maybe sports marketing, just because I love all things sports.

KING: She plans to transfer to the University of Rhode Island after she gets her associate's.

THIBODEAU: I've been able to work. I've been able to accumulate some money so when I do go to URI, I will be in a good place financially. And I'm getting a degree for ultimately nothing.

KING: Now, President Biden's plan to help working-class families includes free community college. Vice President Kamala Harris will travel to Rhode Island today to promote that plan. I talked to CCRI's president, Meghan Hughes.

MEGHAN HUGHES: It's been an outstanding success. Prior to Promise, the college had about a 6% two-year graduation rate, and we have since then achieved an 18%. And similarly, prior to Promise, we had a three-year rate of 15%, which we've now doubled to 30%. That kind of rapid improvement is rarely achieved in the higher education space.

KING: The graduation rates overall, while they have gone up, they don't seem as high as I would think - 18%, a considerable achievement over 6% but still not even 1 in 5 students graduating in two years. Why do you think that is? What's going on?

HUGHES: Sure. I would say, look; 30% for a three-year rate, I would agree with you. We shouldn't rest on our laurels. What I would offer is it is now at the very top of three-year graduating rates for New England community colleges. So we're proud of the improvement. And we know, like so many other colleges across America, we've got work to continue to do.

KING: The Biden administration is proposing two free years of community college in the American Family Plan. What would that actually mean for Rhode Island?

HUGHES: As much as we love our Promise program, it's been hard to know that we have not been able to extend that opportunity to working adults, to Rhode Islanders who need to come back and get retraining in order to be competitive in today's job market. So what we know about the American Families Plan is that it will broaden access and will create much more opportunity.

KING: Is what President Biden is proposing enough?

HUGHES: I listened to President Biden's address when he unveiled this plan. And I agree with every sentence of what he said. You know, this is no longer the country that my grandfather grew up in where you could have, in his case, an eighth-grade degree and make a living to support your family. Those days are gone, and they're not coming back. And I know looking in Rhode Island and, frankly, looking all over the United States, we need to invest in our future workforce if we want to be globally competitive and if we want to retain the country I think we hope to leave to our children and grandchildren.

KING: Meghan Hughes, the president of CCRI, thank you so much for being with us. We appreciate your time.

HUGHES: Thank you so much, Noel.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEGENDARY SKIES' "WORDS ECHOING FROM TEACHERS PAST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.