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The College Crusade of Rhode Island aims to save students from the ‘gap trap’

The organization’s Chief Program Officer, Dana Ginestet, talks about how they’re supporting students who had to pause their educations because of the pandemic

Dana Ginestet, chief program officer for the College Crusade of Rhode Island.Kevin Ginestet

The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Edward Fitzpatrick at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com.

This week’s Ocean State Innovators conversation is with Dana Ginestet, chief program officer for The College Crusade of Rhode Island. The organization won the $25,000 second prize in the Nonprofit Innovation Lab pitch contest (which I helped judge), hosted by the United Way of Rhode Island and the Social Enterprise Greenhouse on Nov. 12.

Q: Tell us a about The College Crusade of Rhode Island and its mission?


Ginestet: The College Crusade prepares and inspires young people to become the first in their families to attend and complete college. Our organization started in 1989, and we support more than 4,000 students each year.

Q: What was the College Crusade proposal that won the $25,000 second prize during the Nov. 12 Nonprofit Innovation Lab pitch contest?

Ginestet: In September, we launched the “Gap” initiative – a model to support students who paused their postsecondary education because of the pandemic. These low-income and first-generation students are most vulnerable to fall into the “gap trap” and are at risk of dropping out of school. With each passing month, these students are losing valuable educational momentum, and there are minimal services to support them. Leveraging the flexibility of our generous funders, the College Crusade’s pilot program supports 100 of these gap students with targeted coaching. Our goal is to help these students get back on track and eventually to bring the initiative to scale so every young person in Rhode Island can access a gap coach.

Q: How much have college enrollment rates fallen in Rhode Island amid the pandemic and what can be done to help get students who are not enrolling to apply to college?


Ginestet: According to the National Student Clearinghouse, Rhode Island saw an 8.1 percent enrollment decline among Rhode Island colleges and universities this fall. However, this decrease is not evenly distributed among student demographics. First-generation students, low-income students, and students of color have seen the steepest declines in enrollment. These students need rapid and targeted support to resume their education as soon as possible. The longer the pause, the more difficult it will be to earn a college degree. This not only negatively affects students and their families but threatens to derail the state’s post-COVID economic recovery.

Q: What are the biggest challenges that Rhode Island students are facing as they try to become the first members of their families to go to college?

Ginestet: First-generation students in Rhode Island face numerous challenges. Finances are certainly at the top of the list. Even before the pandemic, our students struggled to cover all the costs associated with college (tuition, fees, books, transportation, living expenses, etc.). With many students working to support their families, especially during the pandemic, the financial obstacles are even more complex and significant.

Also, student morale is a major concern. From a psychological and risk-taking perspective, our students need to feel optimistic about their chances for success when they decide to embark on a college journey. When students feel hopeful about the future, they are more willing to look at issues from a long-term perspective. The pandemic has really dampened our students’ optimism, and we are working closely with them to bolster resilience and help them refocus on long-term goals.


Q: What kind of help do “gap coaches” provide to students who are struggling to avoid the “gap trap”?

Ginestet: Gap coaches work with students one-on-one to identify solutions to avoid the gap trap. Coaches help students access critical safety net programs to stabilize whatever challenges they face (housing, food security, health care, etc.). From there, they provide financial aid coaching and college application assistance as well as career education to connect the college experience to future work opportunities. And finally, coaches work with our students’ families to help them see the long-term benefits of a college degree, including a significant impact on lifetime earnings.

Q: Can you quantify the lifetime earnings and taxes paid for students by getting a college diploma?

Ginestet: According to Georgetown University’s Center of Education and the Workforce, an individual with a bachelor’s degree earns $2.8 million on average over a lifetime, which is 31 percent more than those with an associate’s degree and 84 percent more than those with just a high school diploma. Locally, individuals in Rhode Island with a bachelor’s degree on average pay $28,000 a year in total tax payments versus $11,500 a year for individuals with only a high school diploma.

Q: How do you locate College Crusade participants and what are your plans for expanding the program?

Ginestet: To assemble our pilot Gap cohort for this year, the College Crusade contacted all students who graduated from high school in the spring to learn whether their plans to enroll in college had changed as a result of the pandemic. We also received student records from partner institutions to see which students had been admitted and enrolled, but then did not show up to classes.


We hope to scale our program to serve hundreds and eventually thousands of students throughout Rhode Island. A leading approach to bring our initiative to scale is to launch a public-private partnership through a pay-for-success model (also known as social impact bonds). Pay-for-success is an innovative financing structure that brings together investors, philanthropy, nonprofit organizations, and government to tackle systemic social challenges. The College Crusade has the history, infrastructure, and local credibility needed to lead such an endeavor on behalf of students and families in Rhode Island.

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.