Rhode Island’s innovative Wavemaker Fellowship Program is designed to ease the burden of student loan debt for young professionals who choose to live and work in the state. The award is geared toward recent graduates working in industries that contribute significantly to the state’s growth, specifically STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and/or design fields. This year, the program will provide 240 people with an average $3,600 in tax credits over the next four years to pay back loans. Since it was launched in 2016, the fellowship has positively impacted many lives.

Governor Gina M. Raimondo noted that this comes at a time when the state has created thousands of jobs. Over the past four years, Rhode Island—which boasts many colleges—has recognized the burden of excessive loan debt on recent graduates. The Wavemaker Fellowship started in 2016 and has seen incredible growth. Last year, the fellowship attracted 400 applications, of which 224 were accepted.

The fellowship has helped many graduates forge a future for themselves despite difficult financial situations and a still-sluggish economy. Secretary of Commerce Stefan Pryor recently discussed how Rhode Island is taking steps toward innovation in both the education sector and within the workforce development sector.

Program, applicants, and creation

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover the need for a program like Wavemaker, and how long did it take to create it?

Stefan Pryor (SP): In 2015, Gov. Gina Raimondo recognized that there was a gap between eligible employees and open positions, especially in STEM fields, in Rhode Island. Talented graduates of our world-class colleges and universities were facing a tough decision about where to start their career or business.

Many were choosing to move to places like Boston, New York or California. Those same graduates were entering adulthood saddled with an average of over $30,000 in student loan debt—a tremendous sum of money for a young professional just starting out. At the same time, our private industry was asking us for help, saying they were having trouble finding and keeping the kind of talent they needed for their companies to thrive.

So our administration created the Wavemaker Fellowship. It’s a creative solution that assists some of our most talented professionals with their college debt while keeping them here and enticing others to start their careers in Rhode Island.

The Fellowship offers a refundable tax credit certificate worth a student’s annual student loan burden, and it’s one of 11 innovative new programs designed to spur job growth and company expansion in Rhode Island’s key advanced industry sectors. These sectors, which include biomedical innovation, defense shipbuilding and maritime, IT/software, and others, had been identified in a Brookings Institution study as key drivers in our state’s future economy. The Wavemaker Fellowship was signed into law in 2015, and in April 2016 the Commerce Department began accepting applications for the first round of fellows.

The inaugural cohort was announced in September 2016. We selected 208 employees representing 110 different employers, totaling about $765,000 per year (for two years) in student loan relief.

MM: What makes the program unique, and what sort of diverse applicants has it attracted?

SP: The Wavemaker Fellowship directly addresses our state’s efforts at STEM- and design-related recruitment and retention, as well as a pressing problem for the newest members of our workforce—their crushing student loan debt. In addition to the financial benefit, it offers programming that aims to deepen the participants’ affinity to and involvement in the state. We’re offering personal and professional development workshops, life skills workshops on topics like how to buy a house and financial well-being, community- and industry-specific events, and even just simple networking opportunities designed to help our fellows connect and share ideas.

Although some employers are offering student loan debt relief as a benefit, ours appears to be one of the only state-based economic development programs. This innovative approach has been a win for all stakeholders. Our employers win by having access to a thriving STEM talent pool; our state wins by retaining and attracting the best talent; and our young professionals win by having access to a program that defrays their student loan debt simply by living and working in a state they love. The program was named “Most Promising Initiative” during the State Science & Technology Institute’s 2017 Creating a Better Future Conference.

In the Fellowship at the moment, we have representation from 240 companies across Rhode Island, and fellows come from more than 148 different alma maters across the globe.

We’re happy to boast that more than 35 percent of our fellows are women, which is higher than the national average of women in STEM fields (between 24 and 29 percent). We have fellows who are entrepreneurs running their own tech companies, fellows who are engineers for the Navy and other defense contractors, and fellows who are architects and designers directly involved in the many construction projects taking place all throughout Rhode Island.

MM: What do you typically seek in applicants who are accepted?

SP: Anyone who is working in a STEM or design field for a company in Rhode Island—and who has student loan debt—can apply. But the ones we’re specifically seeking for this program are the ones who are working in the industries we’ve defined as critical to our future and to our continued economic growth.

We’re also looking for fellows who fill job functions that are deemed high-growth and high-demand, fellows for whom the award would represent last-dollar funding, and fellows for whom this would be a key piece of keeping them in Rhode Island. We want to be that thumb on the scale that makes a budding young STEM or design professional choose Rhode Island as the place to build a career and a future.

MM: Where does the funding for this program come from?

SP: The General Assembly has generously allocated funding for the Wavemaker Fellowship during the past three legislative sessions. As advocated and requested by the governor and the team at Commerce, they recognize the importance of keeping good talent in the state and investing in our future and our economic potential.

Expansion, message, and the future

MM: How has the Wavemaker Program expanded within the past three years, and how do you hope it evolves in the future?

SP: Each year we’re happy to be able to welcome more and more fellows to the program, thanks to the constant stream of funding proposed by the governor and allocated by the General Assembly. We’ve now been able to support 667 individuals throughout the state, who will receive just about $5 million in funding over the next few years to help them manage their student loan debt so that they can continue to invest in the state in other ways.

In addition to that, we’ve hired a dedicated staff member to oversee the program, which has helped us to drive up engagement with, and programming for, the Fellowship recipients.

And we’re doing a better job of getting the word out to Rhode Island companies that this benefit exists and that it can help them retain and recruit high-quality talent in these fields. It’s a free benefit to them that ensures that they get, and keep, the talent they need to continue to innovate and grow.

In the future, we’d love to be able to grow our support of entrepreneurs and startups through this program and increase the dedicated funding so we can impact more people’s choice to grow their career here.

MM: What’s your message to other states that might be looking to implement something similar?

SP: Go for it. The next generation of innovators and thinkers are strangled by their student loan debt.

This is an inhibiting factor to them laying down roots, buying their own home, growing their family and so on. A program like this is a chance for some of the next generation’s finest professionals to get ahead in our economy.