Brown President Christina H. Paxson, center, discussed pressing state issues alongside other leaders at a panel discussion hosted by the Boston Globe. Photos: Nick Dentamaro/Brown University

At discussion among R.I. leaders, higher education takes center stage

Brown President Christina H. Paxson discussed college affordability and other opportunities and challenges alongside other leaders at a Boston Globe discussion on the future of Rhode Island.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — What keeps Brown University President Christina H. Paxson up at night? At a panel discussion on Thursday, Nov. 14, she said she’s most preoccupied with ensuring that promising students from all backgrounds can secure enough financial support to earn a bachelor’s degree.

“The returns on... a four-year degree have never been higher,” said Paxson, an economist who serves also as a professor of economics and international and public affairs at Brown. “Debt is really concentrated in two areas — one is people who don’t finish college. I think we need to make a big push to take those students… and make sure they get out with their degrees.”

Speaking on a panel of higher education, government and health care leaders at an event hosted by the Boston Globe, Paxson described Brown’s financial aid initiatives, which meet the demonstrated need of all students and enable undergraduates whose families earn less than $60,000 annually to attend the University with all tuition and fees covered. But she acknowledged that for most American college students, the prospect of funding a four-year degree is daunting.

“Seventy-five percent of [college] students go to public schools, and the financial situation for those schools is very different,” she said. “They need support that they don’t have. I think we need to have some really hard conversations… at the national level. How do we fit more Pell Grants, how do we fit more support, into the budget to support these students? Somehow we have to sit down and say, how are we going to make this work? Because we’re wasting talent.”

College affordability, public transportation and attracting talented professionals to Rhode Island were among the topics at the center of Thursday’s discussion, which included Paxson, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, Rhode Island College President Frank Sanchez and Lifespan CEO Tim Babineau. The panel, titled “Rhode Map Live: Charting R.I.’s Future,” took place in the new Wexford Innovation Center at 225 Dyer St. in Providence — home both to Brown as one of the building’s anchor tenants as well as to the Boston Globe’s new Rhode Island-based reporting team. Globe reporter Dan McGowan moderated the discussion.

Paxson wasn’t the only participant who advocated for increased access to college. Raimondo said it is her goal to ensure that every Rhode Island student earns a post-secondary degree or credential.

“We need to get serious about affordability and accessibility,” the governor said. “Most students who start college don’t graduate. The number one reason to drop out is money.”

Raimondo said she believed the solution was to offer students simplified academic pathways at the state’s colleges and universities, which would clarify course requirements and make for an easier path to graduation. Sanchez, meanwhile, said he believed the key was to revamp degree offerings to meet the needs of a changing workforce. 

All panelists agreed that higher education would play a key role in growing the economy in Providence and the rest of the state — as would expanding space and support for entrepreneurs with great ideas, a goal that the opening of the Innovation Center has helped to address.

Both Paxson and Raimondo were quick to praise recent growth and development, particularly in the city’s Jewelry District, that have attracted new residents to Providence and brought new life to neighborhoods.

“I have many alumni who come back to campus, and often they haven’t been back for 5, 10, 15, 20 years,” Paxson said. “What I hear... all the time is, ‘I can’t believe… how great Providence is, how great Rhode Island is.’ [When they lived here,] South Street Landing wasn’t renovated; the bridge over the river wasn’t there. And they’re blown away.”

Fast-paced innovation in the state is even helping to increase the population of college graduates who choose to remain in Rhode Island after graduation, Raimondo added. She described an encounter with a young Brown alumnus in the elevator at the Wexford Innovation Center, who said he loved the state and was thrilled to have received support from accelerator MassChallenge to launch his startup in Providence. 

“He’s in this building and he was, like, ‘I love it, I want to stay here,’” she said. “The more we have opportunities for young people to have jobs here, I think people will want to stay.”

Raimondo urged residents to remain open to change, saying that a willingness to evolve would prove instrumental in attracting top talent to Rhode Island.

“We have the wind at our back, because we have an amazing community; amazing colleges, universities and health care; amazing talent… we have everything we need to be great,” Raimondo said. “Sometimes we’ve got to... modernize the way we do things, so our people can have a shot to be successful in this new economy. And I like our chances.”