EAST GREENWICH- After years of working in the national world of education, East Greenwich resident Brenda Dann-Messier has brought her experience back to Rhode Island and was recently appointed as the state Commissioner of Postsecondary Education.
On Aug. 2, the Rhode Island Board of Education announced the appointment, calling Dann-Messier an experienced and dedicated asset to the state.
“Dr. Dann-Messier has demonstrated that she has the talents and experience to address our greatest challenges and opportunities in Rhode Island higher education,” said Bill Folks, chair of the council on postsecondary education. “We are very lucky to have a commissioner with her breadth of experience. Throughout her career she has focused on promoting student success and developing the workforce at every level.”
Most recently, Dann-Messier spent five years working for the Obama Administration as the U.S. Assistant Secretary to Education in the office of career, technical and adult education, and later as the Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education. After coming back to Rhode Island in 2014, she continued national work, until being appointed the Acting Postsecondary Education Commissioner in April of 2017 following the departure of Jim Purcell.
Now, as the commissioner, Dann-Messier will work serve as chief executive officer to the Council on Postsecondary Education and will work with the governor and the state’s three public colleges, the Community College of Rhode Island, the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College.
“I work very closely with our three public institutions for higher education,” she said. “And to develop and implement higher education policy for the state of Rhode Island.”
As a passionate advocate for postsecondary education, Dann-Messier plans to focus on six main priorities as the Commissioner of Postsecondary Education. One being to work with Governor Gina Raimondo to reach an attainment goal of having 70 percent of Rhode Island adults attain postsecondary degrees or certifications by the year 2025.
In doing so, she hopes to focus on recent high school graduates, along with adults who have not completed a postsecondary education program.
“I’m working very hard to develop a plan on how we can reach that goal,” she said. “We can’t get to that goal if we only focus on youth coming out of high school. You have to look at adults who have some college, but no degree, maybe only have a high school diploma, or maybe don’t even have a high school diploma.”
Going along with that goal, Dann-Messier hopes to prioritize the affordability of higher education, something that just got easier with the recent passing of the budget that allows for two free years of college at CCRI for current high school graduates or GED earners.
With the signing of the FY 2018 budget that includes the free tuition plan, Rhode Island became the fourth state in the country to have a tuition-free program.
“I think it’s wonderful,” said Dann-Messier of the new policy. “That’s one of my top priorities to make sure that our system is affordable, so the free college tuition for two years at CCRI, is just an unbelievably wonderful opportunity for Rhode Islanders to be able to pursue higher education.”
According to Dann-Messier, who received higher-educations degrees from Rhode Island College and Johnson and Wales, by the year 2020, 70 percent of jobs are going to require a postsecondary certification or degree, and the free-tuition initiative will help more adults receive those necessary degrees.
“Everybody hears the reports constantly about how expensive higher education is and folks can’t really go to college anymore because of the cost, and the governor wanted to take that obstacle out of the way,” said Dann-Messier.
The program is not only for students who want to complete general education courses at CCRI, but the college also has a strong focus on work-force preparation skills, in addition to a program that helps undecided students narrow their choices down within the first semester.
Another main priority Dann-Messier hopes to focus on is the closing of equity gaps to ensure that all students have access to and can complete a postsecondary education, no matter their background.
“While we’ve made some process in this state in higher-education attainment, we’re now at the national average of 45.8 percent of our students have a degree or credential, those numbers are not the same for African American, Latino and Asian students, so I want to be very explicit in setting an equity goal,” she said.
Additionally, she plans to focus on innovation, reaching students effectively, and building pathways to allow a seamless transition from secondary to postsecondary eduction for students. With years of experience in adult education, Dann-Messier is more than ready to take on the task.
“I have a very strong background in higher education, career and technical education, designing career preparation systems for states, that’s what I bring to this job,” she said. “I have a great understanding and have done a lot of work designing policies and programs for low income youth and adults, for low skilled adults, for immigrants and the incarcerated.”
“Dr. Dann-Messier has a proven track record in developing educational programs and policies that meet employer needs,” said Gov. Raimondo. “I have full confidence in her leadership.”