In Rhode Island, Building a bRIdge to the Knowledge Economy

“Your students come here for four years and leave.”

For some time, this had been a common perception among many Rhode Islanders regarding to the state’s independent colleges and universities. But that’s changing.

The state’s housing bubble had burst in 2006, leading to interest in developing less volatile economic sectors that would provide the stable high-end services jobs. By 2008, Rhode Island, already a year into the recession that would soon be felt by the rest of the country, was in the early stages of refocusing its economic development efforts on transitioning to a knowledge-based economy. This move would require an educated workforce, largely deemed the responsibility of the state’s 11 public and private institutions of higher education. Collectively, these colleges and universities educated nearly 90,000 students, producing nearly 18,000 graduates annually. For a state with slightly over a million residents and low population growth, increasing the retention of these graduates had the potential to close the postsecondary educational attainment gap that Rhode Island faced in comparison to its neighboring states.

“It was becoming evident in 2008 discussions with elected officials and policy leaders, which led to the knowledge economy concept, that colleges and universities were beginning to be seen in a new light as economic engines,” says Dan Egan, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Rhode Island (AICU Rhode Island). “Traditionally tracked by employment, spending and impact data, economic development opportunities around newly minted graduates were a new lens to gauge higher education’s impact on job creation and economic growth. The Knowledge Retention Symposium and subsequent bRIdge initiative have been born out of this new way of thinking.”

In fall 2009, nearly 100 educators, students, alumni, business leaders, policy officials and entrepreneurs from across the state convened on the campus of Brown University for the Knowledge Retention Symposium, a forum to explore strategies to grow the state’s knowledge workforce. This diverse group of representatives, from bank executives to self-employed artists, recognized the potential impact that increasing graduate retention could have on the local economy. From the discussion, it became clear that data were needed to determine whether the “brain drain” issue being discussed was real or perceived. In addition, two research questions emerged: how do current students view Rhode Island, and what experiences are common among alumni who decide to stay local after graduation?

Building a bridge

In 2010, AICU Rhode Island launched bRIdge, a statewide initiative to answer these questions and implement a strategy to increase post-graduate opportunity in Rhode Island. Early partners included the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, Innovation Providence Implementation Council, and the Rhode Island Foundation. AICU Rhode Island’s first action was to enlist the help of Collegia, a Boston-area consulting firm that had previously researched graduate retention in states such as Massachusetts, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Nearly 10,000 undergraduates and 2,500 alumni across all Rhode Island colleges and universities were surveyed, and focus group sessions were held at each institution. The study revealed that while students generally had a favorable view of the state, poor entry-level employment prospects were the overwhelming deterrent to retention. The study clearly demonstrated that students who had local internships and those that spent more time off-campus than their peers were significantly more likely to remain in Rhode Island after graduation. Of 2006 and 2007 graduates from the private colleges and universities, only 12% of those without local internship experiences stayed in Rhode Island after graduation. For those who had one to two internship experiences on their resumes, the retention rate jumped to 31%. Similarly, students who only ventured off campus a few times a month were half as likely to stay when compared to those who ventured off campus one to two times per week.

Fast forward to 2012. Rhode Island unemployment reached 11.8%, and the Providence metropolitan area was one of only two large U.S. regions still losing jobs. While some of Rhode Island’s labor issues are unique, the lack of opportunity for recent graduates is a problem nationally. As noted recently in USA Today, 54% of bachelor’s degree-holders under the age of 25 last year were jobless or underemployed.

Aligning grads and startups

This summer, AICU Rhode Island launched two new programs that seek to both support job creation and align graduates with available employment opportunities. In June, the organization enlisted the support of local founders of early-stage startups to host the inaugural Newport Startup Session on the campus of Salve Regina University. Students spent nine days working in an experiential learning environment to develop a core entrepreneurial skill set. Through the program, participants gained an accessible mentor network and connections to students at nearby institutions who share their interest in innovation in higher education.

“It is extremely important for institutions of higher learning to continually identify the skill sets demanded in today’s ever-evolving workforce and to prepare students with the tools to meet those demands,” says Jane Gerety, president of Salve Regina University. “It is equally important that we foster networking relationships to bridge academia and the business community. We are proud to host The Newport Startup Session, which accomplishes all of these important objectives.”

The program concluded with a half-day conference that brought together members of academia and the local entrepreneurial community for a discussion about supporting entrepreneurship on the campuses of Rhode Island’s colleges and universities.

“We want to give back to the community by sparking passion for, and interest in, entrepreneurship among students, while they are still in school and can help achieve great change,” adds program mentor Kyle Judah, CEO of RecoVend, a startup developing a collaborative purchasing platform for institutions of higher education. The company relocated from Boston to Providence in order to participate in Betaspring, a 12-week startup accelerator program that enables teams with a strong start on a high-growth venture to rapidly transform into fundable, scalable companies. Since then, RecoVend has been working with AICU Rhode Island member institutions to explore opportunities for collaboration and contract workflow management.

To create better visibility for local employment opportunities, AICU Rhode Island has partnered with the Rhode Island Student Loan Authority and Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce to develop an online job board with the goal of placing more college students in nearby internships. The new resource will present college students in Rhode Island with unique opportunities to work with startups, small businesses and nonprofits that may otherwise be easily overshadowed by larger employers that recruit on campus.

The emphasis on internships is not solely for the purpose of local retention. According to the 2010 Student Survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 42% of seniors who had internship experience and applied for a job received at least one job offer, compared with only 31% of seniors without internship experience. Ensuring that students graduate with applied work experience on their resumes is now critical for institutions whose graduates seek to enter the workforce.

Whether they are entrepreneurs participating in programs like Newport Startup Session, or interns working for local businesses, colleges and universities should celebrate the economic contributions of students in their host communities. From the conversation that began in 2009 at the Knowledge Retention Symposium, to the data-driven strategy being implemented today, colleges and universities in Rhode Island are committed to working in partnership with the community to develop the educated workforce needed to reinvent the local economy.

Adam Leonard is bRIdge program manager at the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Rhode Island.



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