RIC Answers the Call for Adult Education and Workforce Development, Part I

Exterior of RIC Workforce Hub building

RIC’s Workforce Development Hub now offers not only job training and certificate courses but credit-bearing courses for adult learners.

In 2016 former R.I. Gov. Gina Raimondo proposed that at least 70 percent of the state’s working population should possess post-secondary education credentials by 2025. That proposal was hailed as a move that would boost employee salaries and encourage a more robust tax base.

“As a public institution, Rhode Island College is concerned about sup- porting industry and business for the benefit of our graduates, who should be employment ready with the skills and knowledge to thrive in the workplace,” says Rhode Island College President Jack Warner.

That’s a challenge since the latest labor statistics reveal that the state’s workforce isn’t growing by much. Over the last 20 years, Rhode Island’s working-age population increased by only 10 percent, the lowest increase in New England.

Factor in an “enrollment cliff” that some education experts predict will trigger a 10-15 percent drop among traditional college-age students by 2025. Other experts say the drop may not be as dire. Nonetheless, to address the anticipated decline, Rhode Island College has strengthened its institutional focus on adult learners.

“To be sure, the adult market is competitive, but we think we can grow in several different arenas,” Warner says. “We’re working to carve out the right niche.”

Among the strategic new initiatives in the college’s adult education/workforce development arsenal are:

  • A steadily growing Bachelor of Professional Studies (B.P.S.) degree completion program
  • A redesigned Office of Corporate Engagement and Professional Studies whose mission is to strengthen the connections with employers and fulfill workforce needs
  • New weekend graduate courses in clinical social work and “HyFlex” courses for graduate nursing students
  • A bevy of grant-funded projects funneling through the college’s Institute for Education in Healthcare [within the School of Business] to boost training among healthcare providers statewide.
Busy Adults Opt for the B.P.S. Program

Launched in Spring 2022, the B.P.S. is RIC’s first fully online adult degree completion program, designed for people who have earned some college credit but didn’t finish. In Rhode Island, that’s estimated to be about 125,000 residents.

The program – which launched with concentrations in social services and organizational leadership and allows participants to take two courses apiece in two eight-week sessions within a semester – is comprised of adult learners who may be juggling work, family and community commitments. New concentrations in strategic communication and educational foundations launched this fall.

Candidates must be 25 years and older, have five years of documented work or military experience, at least 24 college credits and be working toward their first bachelor’s degree. Some of the students’ professional experience can count toward college credit.

Ruth Soares, Nicole Haas-Rodriguez and Kieshana Dawkins, who are concentrating in social services, are among the women who formed the B.P.S. “alpha cohort” in spring 2022. Haas-Rodriguez hopes to move up in her career from executive assistant at a local healthcare agency to healthcare advocate. Soares, a teacher assistant in the Pawtucket School Department, says she isn’t certain yet about her next steps but believes the B.P.S. represents the link to her future. Dawkins plans to use the degree to open a drop-in center for residents in need on Providence’s South Side and name it after her late mother, Penny, who was known for always helping others. They all expect to graduate in Spring 2024.

B.P.S. student Ruth Soares
Ruth Soares, 54, is working towards her Bachelor of Professional Studies with a concentration in social services. She expects to graduate in Spring 2024.

“I’ve always wanted a college education but didn’t know how it could be done,” says Soares, 54. “Now that I’m doing it, I’m so excited about learning new things. I think sometimes colleges are so focused on attracting students in the 18-24-year- old range, they tend to neglect people in my age range. Being a part of B.P.S. is going to open doors for everybody, and I’m happy that I will be able to finish in two years, rather than five.”

B.P.S. student Nicole Haas-Rodriguez
B.P.S. student Nicole Haas-Rodriguez

Haas-Rodriguez, 35, says the B.P.S. program appealed to her because “it’s geared toward adults who have responsibilities outside of just being a student. And this is something I can get into and stay focused. That’s very motivating to me.”

At times, Haas-Rodriguez says she’s felt like an imposter in her current job.

“Having a degree isn’t going to make me that much smarter or a better person in any way, but it will make me feel a little more secure. It will signify to everyone at my job that I’m supposed to be there, and, more importantly, I will know that I’m supposed to be there,” she says.

B.P.S. student Kieshanna Dawkins
B.P.S. student Kieshana Dawkins

Dawkins, 44, used to work as a mental health clinician at CODAC (a behavioral healthcare treatment nonprofit in Providence) but couldn’t earn the same salary as fellow clinicians because she didn’t have a degree.

“Without a degree I’m limited,” she says. “At CODAC, I couldn’t write notes or get paid a higher amount, but I was doing all this clinician work, such as counseling and writing up treatment plans. But I wasn’t being compensated enough to support my family.”

B.P.S. students Laura Garcia and Aura Cruz
B.P.S. students, from left, Aura Cruz and Laura Garcia

Aura Cruz and Laura Garcia, friends and colleagues who work together in the out-patient ambulatory specialty clinic at Rhode Island Hospital, are also B.P.S. students earning degrees in organizational leadership.

Cruz, 30, wants to be a leader in healthcare management and a resource for people who need it.

“I want to be the type of leader who makes a difference in the community and finds ways to make the work environment a better place,” says Cruz, who persuaded Garcia to join her in the B.P.S. program.

“She keeps me on my toes, and I keep her on her toes,” says Garcia, 33, of Cruz.

Garcia intends to use her degree to become a physician assistant, working directly with patients. “Enrolling in the B.P.S. program has opened my eyes to the fact that there are so many people who could benefit from this program but don’t have the resources,” she says.

Cruz says she now realizes there isn’t an age limit on earning a degree.

“In my early 20s, I used to beat myself up, thinking that my college education needed to happen then,” she says. “But I’m glad it’s happening now with me as a working person. I see things in a different light.”

Building a Bridge to R.I. Employers

In October 2022 President Warner named Jenifer Giroux as the college’s first-ever vice president of corporate engagement and professional studies. Giroux, formerly associate vice president of professional studies and continuing education, is tasked with partnering with the college’s academic offices to develop strategies that expand adult education, continuing education, workforce development, online coursework and graduate studies.

“Our goal is to look at economic trends to make data-driven and informed decisions about how to meet the needs of state employers,” Giroux says. “The priority is to have more employer engagement here on campus and opportunities for our students to work with business and industry.”

Thus far, Giroux says she’s receiving encouraging response from employers around the state.

“They want to bring RIC in or send their employees to the college for training,” she says. “There’s an affinity for RIC, especially from our alumni at various corporations around Rhode Island.”

Giroux also oversees activities at the Rhode Island College Workforce Development Hub in Central Falls, an education and training facility that opened in 2020. After a brief hiatus during COVID, the hub, where programming is primarily grant-funded and cohort-based, is now fully active again.

Exterior of RIC Workforce Development Hub building
Current programming at the RIC Workforce Development Hub includes bookkeeping/accounting training, community health worker training, digital literacy, English as a Second Language classes, first aid/CPR, healthcare bridge program for multilingual learners, Internet technology help desk training and medical assisting training.

Equus Workforce Solutions, an organization that provides workforce development, career advising and financial literacy has recently set up shop in the hub. The Department of Labor and Training is expected to begin offering services at the Hub after the new year.

“For anyone who comes to the Department of Labor and Training and are interested in workforce development programs or educational opportunities, we’ll be right there to meet with their clients,” Giroux says.

The hub, which offers certificate classes and job training in a community that’s roughly 70 percent Hispanic/ Latinx, recently received New England Commission of Higher Education approval to offer credit-bearing classes. This will allow expanded programming to include undergraduate, graduate and dual enrollment courses.

Warner says that the college is also aiming to build a team of instructional designers like Miko Nino, who since fall 2022 has been working as assistant vice president for adult and online education alongside Giroux.

“There’s an art and a science to instructional design,” Warner says. “We all had to pivot to remote learning because of COVID but that wasn’t the best way to intentionally design remote activity. There’s a lot more to it than that.”

Nino says he’s working with faculty and administrators to promote a change in the way some see online learning.

“Online learning can be as good as traditional learning, if not better, when well designed,” he says. “Online learning is a need for today’s learners, not a luxury or something trendy. For several students, online is the only way to get an education. Besides a flexible delivery format, learners are looking for content that is connected to specific knowledge, skills, and abilities. They want to know the accompanying classes can be aligned to career readiness and reaching their career goals.”

See Part II of “RIC Answers the Call for Adult Education and Workforce Development