Target: 70% of RI workers with higher education – Warwick Beacon


Former Gov. Gina Raimondo set a lofty goal – get 70 percent of the state’s working-age population to hold a postsecondary degree or equivalent credentials by 2025.

Dr. Shannon Gilkey, the state’s new commissioner of postsecondary education, shared his plans for achieving that goal with the Warwick Rotary Club last Thursday.

Before moving to Rhode Island, Gilkey served as vice-chancellor of academics and workforce development at the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, as well as senior policy advisor for economic and workforce development for the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. He oversaw Kentucky’s career and technical programs, workforce training, and processional development for the state’s 16 college serving over 100,000 students.

The Rhode Island Office on Postsecondary Education is one of 50 across the country. According to Gilkey, the state agencies for higher education “are supposed to champion and advocate for policy changes when it comes to higher education or colleges or universities.”

Gilkey believes that he and other higher education commissioners are “supposed to be a source of policy ideas and innovation,” like the Rhode Island Promise Scholarship, which he worked with Raimondo on back in 2017.

According to Gilkey’s statistics, only 53 percent of the state has some sort of postsecondary experience.

“That’s a pretty big leap,” he acknowledged, but sees the ambitious goal as an “opportunity for our colleges and universities and school districts to come together and think about where the leaks are in the education pipeline.”

The power of higher education

Gilkey, a first-generation college student, understands the advantages to holding a postsecondary degree or equivalent experience.

In his address, Gilkey shared his background and goals for his new role as Rhode Island’s commissioner of postsecondary education.

“I come from a family in southwest Kentucky that suffered from the coal industry leaving,” Gilkey said. “My dad’s a laid-off coal miner. He got laid off two or three times, I think, over the course of his career. When the mines picked up, he got to go back to work, and when the mines shut down, he got to come home. And then when he did come home, he ran a mechanic business on the side, and a welding business. He had a couple of bulldozers, so he had an excavating business. He called it scratching out a living, and that’s what we did.”

Gilkey said he first held a stick welder at 7 years old, when his father taught him the family business.

Gilkey explained that his family also raised tobacco and 150 cows, “anything to make an honest dollar, and as my dad put it, where you could lay your head on your pillow at night and feel like you did a good day’s work.”

For Gilkey, going to college changed his life.

“I can honestly say that without the Rotary scholarship, without the Pell Grant, without a bunch of organizational scholarships that my parents had no idea how to help us apply for but knew they were important, my sisters and I would not have gone to college,” he said.

Gilkey attended Murray State University in Kentucky, then the University of Oxford in England, where he received his master’s in higher education. He then received a second master’s of education from the Teachers College of Columbia University before earning his doctorate in educational leadership from Western Kentucky University.

Beyond the classroom

For Gilkey, postsecondary education isn’t limited to a formal institution or classroom setting.

“I’ll say upfront, that when I define higher education or college, it’s not a four-year degree only in a vacuum. It also included all types of different post-high school experiences that can lead to a good job,” he said. “Higher education is an approach to help people take care of themselves and care for their family members over generations.”

True to his teaching roots, Gilkey brought handouts for Rotary Club attendees, in lieu of a PowerPoint presentation.

Gilkey is advocating for more widely accepted credentialing of apprenticeships and trade programs.

“I wholeheartedly agree that U.S. registered apprenticeships are a fantastic training mechanism for individuals to lead to a job,” he said.

For businesses, the available talent pool is often a deciding factor when considering a new location.

During his time in Kentucky, Gilkey worked with Amazon and the senior leadership team. “I sat in those rooms with Amazon when the Amazon Air Hub came to Kentucky several years ago. The number one question the senior leadership team has before they would sign off on using our airport is, ‘Can we find enough people to train? Or do you have the infrastructure and higher education system to get people ready to go to work?’”

Gilkey predicts that Rhode Island will see an uptick in manufacturing, and wants to reshape the postsecondary education systems to more accurately include training in those fields.

Gilkey is also pushing for more “GED plus” programs, which would allow individuals to earn their GED while simultaneously earning a higher education degree.

“No longer is it, ‘Oh, you have to sit in the GED class for six or 12 weeks and then you can go on to higher ed.’ We can be doing things across adult education and higher education together that allow folks to get ready for their job and get their families out of poverty, but get that credential at the same time,” he said.

‘Targeted local approach’

Gilkey has made it his mission to meet with every Rhode Island mayor and town manager, and he’s been able to sit down with 38 out of the 39 since he started in the position this February 2021. A majority, he says, had never heard of the Office on Postsecondary Education before the meeting.

At each meeting, Gilkey shared statistics and data about each city and town’s school district in what he called a postsecondary attainment profile.

“There’s a lot of commonality across certain things, but there’s also a lot, and in my view, a lot of uniqueness and competitiveness community by community,” he said. “If we don’t come down and really localize and understand, we’re never going to reach a big goal, so we have to go community by community to talk about equitable attainment.”

While Warwick Mayor Frank Picozzi said during a press conference with Beacon reporters Tuesday that he has yet to look at the profile, Warwick’s data show that out of the city’s working-age population, which is 44,952 residents between the ages of 25 and 64, 45 percent have an associate degree or higher.

Eight percent of Warwick’s working population has no high school diploma, 28 percent have a high school diploma or equivalent experience, 20 percent have some college experience, 11 percent have an associate degree, and 34 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Superintendent Lynn Dambruch and Assistant Superintendent William McCaffrey, in an interview last Friday, acknowledged they were looking forward to collaborating with Gilkey, “to support what we’re doing strategically here in the schools,” said McCaffrey.

According to the profile, 45 percent of the eligible population in Warwick filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), while 54 percent of the eligible state population filled out the forms.

“A quick stat on that is last year, Rhode Island families and Rhode Islanders left about $6 million of unused scholarship money on the table,” Gilkey said. “One of the barriers, we think, for people going back and getting training and education is the fact that the financial aid forms are very complicated.”

Gilkey explained that in his on-on-one meetings with state leaders, one possible solution came from Mayor Roberto Silva in East Providence. Working alongside local nonprofits, Silva and Gilkey want to host a FAFSA strategy workshop to help families fill out the financial aid form.

“That’s where I think local organizations and government can play a role in helping their community raise their education attainment profile,” Gilkey said.

Gilkey also believes that higher education has to “get better” at what it does, by looking at “changing population demographics” and more modern approaches to learning.

Based on population trends, the number of students in the kindergarten to grade 12 system is declining, and the number of retirees is growing.

“Higher education is designed on a thousand-year-old model, where it expects the student or the individual or apply, to get accepted, and to come to campus,” said Gilkey, who emphasized that this ancient ways of doing things isn’t conducive to “someone who’s 25 to 65, who might be unemployed with two kids, or maybe parents they have to take care of, or mortgage payments to make.”

He added: “Education has to work with business and industry to make sure it’s offering and delivering education around where people really are in society.”

Gilkey’s goal is to make education more flexible and attainable, especially for the working population.

“It’s not just dollars and cents that brings in the tax revenue, but it’s also the knowledge of having that service to your help your community keep going,” he said. “It’s not the same old model where you go to college, you live in a dorm, you graduate, you get a good job. It has to be more nimble. It has to be reflective of the environment that we’re in right now.”

Meeting students where they are

During his address to the Rotary Club, Gilkey also pointed to the 120,000 Rhode Islanders “out there with some college education, meaning they started at some point, but left.”

One of Gilkey’s challenges in his new role is to get those Rhode Islanders back to school or in a credential or training program.

“That’s can’t be done by sending out an email or having a billboard that says come back to college,” Gilkey said. “That’s what I call a blocking and tackling type strategy. You got to get out there, meet and talk to people, and figure out where they are. Are they in a good paying job if they just have two more classes or that one training program? Could that change their perspective?”

Gilkey mentioned the Rhode Island Reconnect program that runs out of the postsecondary education office. The free program connects people to job opportunities, provides training, resume help, and more.

“We’re spending up to $5,000 a person to help them with all the other things that may be a barrier to getting them that training that leads to a job,” he said. “It could be a laptop, it could be transportation, or it could be child care. Helping them get that training could turn their life around, and if we do that in bulk, we can turn communities around.”

Another possible solution to achieving the statewide goal is to invest more in dual degree programs.

If a high school junior or senior takes part in a dual credit or dual enrollment program, which means they’re taking a college class while still enrolled in high school, “they are much more likely, and this is based on Rhode Island data, much more likely to graduate college,” Gilkey said.

Students in dual degree programs do not have to pay tuition, a cost that’s covered by taxpayers. According to Gilkey, students are more likely to continue with education if they aren’t saddled with debt right away.

“We know, on average, that folks that have a four-year degree or at least a two-year degree are less dependent on social welfare programs, they’re more likely to vote, they’re more tolerant when it comes to engaging in civic discourse,” Gilkey said. “Those things would not be absent in the conversation about why higher education matters.”