Five Questions With: Charles P. Kelley

Charles P. Kelley joined the Warwick-based Rhode Island Student Loan Authority, or RISLA, in 1991 as deputy director. He was appointed executive director in 1993. He led RISLA in growing from a three-person operation in 1991 to a nationally recognized organization in higher education finance with AA and AAA bond ratings. During his tenure, RISLA became the first nonprofit in the country to offer refinancing of higher education loans.

Kelley also served on the Board of the Education Finance Council – the national association for student loan secondary markets – from 1996 to 2002, including two years as chairman. In addition, he is a certified public accountant and a chartered financial analyst.

Kelley has a master’s degree in public administration with a concentration in public finance from Harvard University. He also has a bachelor’s degree in accounting and business administration from the University of Rhode Island.

PBN: How was the Rhode Island Student Loan Authority created and what does it do?

- Advertisement -

KELLEY: RISLA was founded in 1981 as a nonprofit quasi-state authority. Its mission is to help students and families achieve their higher education dreams. Our unique structure allows RISLA to borrow at very low rates by issuing tax-exempt bonds, thereby allowing us to provide some of the lowest fixed-rate education loans in the country. RISLA also refinances education loans for both students and parents so that they may obtain a lower fixed interest rate.

RISLA not only provides low-interest loans, but so much more. For 20 years, the RISLA College Planning Center has been providing free one-on-one assistance to students and their families by helping them select the right college, both academically and financially. Additionally, the College Planning Center critiques college admission essays, helps students file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA; the CSS Profile form; and also assists families in understanding their financial aid award letters.

The College Planning Center’s outreach covers the state to reach Rhode Island’s high schools and businesses. Our presentations include the college admission and financial aid process, as well as financial literacy education and finding internships.

PBN: What forms of financial aid are available?

KELLEY: Students should focus on free grant or scholarship aid. The primary sources of financial aid that [do] not have to be repaid are Pell grants, need-based and merit aid from colleges and universities, scholarships, work-study, and the Rhode Island Promise Program provides free tuition at Community College of Rhode Island, or CCRI, for eligible students.

PBN: Why do some students miss opportunities for financial aid?

KELLEY: An analysis by the group NerdWallet estimated that $5.6 million in Pell grants went unclaimed by Rhode Island students in 2017. That money could have made a significant impact on the lives of so many Rhode Island students and the future of our state.

Some students and families do not complete the FAFSA because they think it is too complicated, while other families do not apply because they think they make too much money to qualify.

While some families may not be eligible for a Pell Grant, according to one higher education survey, the reality is that 25 percent of students at private institutions receive aid. Filing the FAFSA is the key to accessing that financial aid. Even well-to-do families may file a FAFSA form, which will allow the student to obtain a direct student loan through the federal government.

PBN: What is RISLA doing now to improve access to financial aid?

KELLEY: The governor [Gina M. Raimondo] has challenged higher education groups, including RISLA and the Office of the Postsecondary Commissioner to increase the FAFSA completion rate for Rhode Island high school students, especially for first-generation and the underserved. Our goal is to help these families see that if there is a grant aid [Pell grants and institutional aid], as well as the possibility for free tuition at CCRI and work-study opportunities, they will realize that higher education or postsecondary training is obtainable without going into debt.

RISLA has a short video explaining how to complete the FAFSA, which is available in both English and Spanish, by texting the word “FAFSA” to 24000. Free one-on-one confidential appointments can be booked online at or by calling our FAFSA hotline at (401) 468-1703, Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. during February.

In addition to an advertising and public relations campaign to promote FAFSA completion, we also are empowering students to help their friends and peers. RISLA interns are using their own social media channels to encourage their peers to complete these all-important forms. As an added incentive, high schools with the highest FAFSA completion rates or [that] have improved their completion rate the most will share $25,000 in scholarship funds to award to their students.

PBN: Are the amounts of financial aid available keeping up with rising costs of tuition, etc.?

KELLEY: According to the College Board, average tuition and fees increased less than 2 percent last year, after adjusting for inflation. Over the last 10 years, the maximum Pell Grant increased by 1.2 percent per year, after adjusting for inflation. So, clearly the federal Pell Grant is not keeping pace with the cost of higher education. At the national level, the Pell Grant covers just 29 percent of the average costs of tuition, fees, room and board at public four-year colleges. However, in Rhode Island we see that many institutions are increasing their need-based aid to help fill the gap.

Students and families must also remember that higher education is still one of the best investments that they can make. The Social Security Administration calculated that even after taking socio-demographics into account, men and women with bachelor’s degrees will have lifetime earnings of approximately $500,000 more than high school graduates.

Scott Blake is a PBN staff writer. Email him at