Free College and Job Skills at CCRI in Providence

Edward J. Liston Campus of CCRI photo: courtesy of CCRI

After more than a decade as a firefighter and EMT, and then as a woodworker for several more years, Raymond Paulhus decided he wanted more out of life and work. So, he went back to school in South Providence at the Liston Campus of CCRI – the Community College of Rhode Island – to see if he had a future in healthcare.  Today, he’s a lead Certified Nursing Assistant in the Emergency Department at Miriam Hospital and “loving it!”

Paulhus is one of thousands of Rhode Islanders who have launched or advanced careers at Liston and the three other CCRI campuses. Many take advantage of established pathways to URI or Rhode Island College to complete Bachelors degrees. Others participate in the numerous partnerships between CCRI and local industries that need workers with special skills and/or certification.

“It’s a complete job connection – we call it a Workforce Hub,” says Madeline Burke, CCRI’s Executive Director of Strategic Partnerships and leader of the Liston Campus. And it’s almost all offered either free or at significantly reduced cost to both students and employers through a combination of state support and industry partnerships.

“This can relieve the financial stresses that often get in the way of students’ success,” Burke noted.

Raymond Paulhus at work in the Emergency Department of Miriam Hospital photo: Raymond Paulhus

From its founding in Providence in 1964 as Rhode Island Junior College – with only 325 students – the institution now called CCRI has grown to enroll over 16,000 students.  At its core, CCRI offers more than 90 degree and certificate programs that prepare students for careers in high demand fields or for transfer to a four-year college to complete a bachelor’s degree. It has transfer relationships with more than 70 four-year colleges and universities including a four-year Joint Admission Agreement with URI that offers a 30 percent discount on tuition for the final two years.

While continuing to offer traditional Associate Degrees and trade certificate programs, CCRI has greatly expanded its focus to meet the needs of a changing student body and a changing labor economy.  Many of these new opportunities are offered at all four campuses and two satellite locations, while some courses and programs, requiring special facilities, may be available at only one. As a result, most students spend parts of their time at more than one campus, enabled by reduced-fare bus passes.

A special focus on Providence
At the Liston Campus, CCRI has taken additional steps to serve the changing population of Providence, emphasizing diversity, which is highlighted by the flags of the dozens of students’ birth or recent ancestral countries on prominent display in the school’s central atrium.

The campus collaborates with numerous organizations, including Dorcas International Institute, various libraries, and Boys & Girls Clubs, to offer education opportunities to all segments of the community.

To help alleviate food insecurity, the campus has created partnerships with Stop & Shop to provide groceries and the Elisha Project to deliver fresh foods for students needing assistance.

High school seniors in the Providence Public School District can earn college credits and explore academic and career pathways before graduation through the Accelerate program at the Liston Campus. If accepted to the program, they take their senior year at CCRI, earning both high school and college credit. They can then complete Associate degrees in only one year after high school. And it’s free.

Lori Suher, counselor for grades 9-12 at Times2 Academy, tries to make sure every student who expresses interest in Accelerate is fully aware of the challenges they’d face. “So I tell them they not only need good grades going in, but they also need to be independent and responsible to get along in the new college environment.

“More than 30 Times2 students have been accepted into the program in the three years I’ve been here,” says Suher. “A few decided not to go, but all of our students who started the program completed the two years and went on to four-year college or additional skill training. Many of them went to URI on a reduced tuition program or Rhode Island College.

“We have excellent communication with CCRI so we’re aware of how all our students are doing and if any concerns arise, which fortunately has been rare.”

Students gather in the atrium                                                 photo: courtesy of CCRI

Cost is almost never an obstacle
There’s a wide range of opportunities for students with differing circumstances to take advantage of what CCRI has to offer at its campuses as well as online. The Rhode Island Promise Scholarship, created in 2017 and signed into law in 2021, allows eligible students coming right out of high school to complete an Associate degree tuition-free. According to Burke, thirty-five percent of students taking at least one course at Liston last fall were Promise Scholars. In total, 2074 CCRI students were in the RI Promise program during the Fall 2023 semester.

As a federally-designated Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI), the college can apply for HSI-specific, U.S. Department of Education grants to fund training, programs, and infrastructure. CCRI as a whole has approximately 30% Hispanic enrollment: 46% of students taking at least one course at Liston last fall identified as Hispanic.

A growing number of former CCRI students who would like to complete their degrees are returning tuition-free for one year using the new Fresh Start Scholarship.

Adults whose jobs disappeared during Covid have found new skills and career direction at CCRI. Many have used the college’s wide-ranging online options, allowing them to meet family and part-time job responsibilities while learning.

The RI-BEST program offers certificate and credit courses to help employed people qualify for higher level jobs in their fields, currently including healthcare, early childhood education and CNC (computer numerical control) manufacturing. Adult education offerings include GED preparation and testing, and English language studies.

A class in English as a Second Language                                photo: courtesy of CCRI

Strong employer partnerships
CCRI’s Division of Workforce Partnerships works with employers all over the state (and some beyond) to create instructional programs that qualify students for jobs that employers need to fill both now and in the future. “We provide our students with pathways to family-sustaining careers while responding to the critical workforce needs of the state’s most important industries,” says Jennifer Johnson, CCRI vice president for Workforce Partnerships.

Healthcare is one of CCRI’s biggest workforce partner industries, with employer partnerships across the state and student training for initial employment or advancement in more than 15 categories.  Lifespan, the state’s largest healthcare organization, has an active ongoing partnership with CCRI to provide the academic components of its Workforce STAT (Support, Training & Teamwork) effort.

“We track open positions and then work with CCRI to design course programs that will give students the skills they need to get and keep those jobs,” says Alexis Devine, Lifespan’s program manager for workforce development. “They are a fantastic partner.”  More than 700 Lifespan employees in numerous clinical and administrative positions have come through Workforce STAT and CCRI. More than 80 percent of them are Black, Indigenous and people of color.

Other key job categories are in what Johnson labels the “wind, blue and green economies.” The blue (ocean) group includes maritime manufacturing, most prominently submarines for the U.S. Navy. CCRI has trained more than 4,000 workers for General Dynamics Electric Boat, most at Quonset, others in Groton.

The Fast Track to CNC Manufacturing Program, part of the Real Jobs RI initiative, is preparing students for good-paying careers in advanced manufacturing. Available to students at all CCRI campuses, the courses are given in a state-of-the-art facility at Liston.

Polaris MEP, a statewide nonprofit that manages the Fast Track program, approached CCRI to help solve  a growing shortage of CNC technicians needed by manufacturers across the city and state. Aarin B. Clemons, workforce manager for the organization, says nearly 80 percent of students who complete the entry level training get and keep jobs. And about half of those ultimately return to Liston for Phase II training in advanced CNC and digital design.

In addition to actual job skills, CCRI offers job-seeking skills including resumé preparation and interviewing.

As part of its commitment to the total community, CCRI serves inmates at the Women’s Facility of the Adult Correctional Institutions, offering Associate Degree programs in Culinary Arts and Entrepreneurship. The school also recruits employers who will give previously-incarcerated graduates a chance to work while on parole or after release.  A high percentage of the women using this program are Providence residents seeking reintegration into society after incarceration.

Campus leader Burke sums it up this way: “With programs structured to provide employers with the qualified workers they need and flexibility to meet the needs of students at all career stages, the Liston Campus is an important part of the city’s economic life.”

And Raymond Paulhus can’t say enough about what he received from the program:

“Between the academics and clinical work at CCRI and work readiness training at Lifespan, I got everything I needed to succeed,” he says. “They have solutions to help students through just about any difficulties.”


Art Norwalk has been a Providence resident since 1965.  He is a retired marketing communications consultant and former news producer and political reporter at WJAR-TV (Ch. 10). He is a past board member and president of the Old Slater Mill Association and Hope Alzheimer’s Center, past president and current chair of the Literacy Committee at the Rotary Club of Providence, and co-chair of the Marketing Committee at the Lifelong Learning Collaborative.