From McDonald's to the State House: how one lawmaker found success without a college diploma


For some people, a college degree isn't everything. Think of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, or American Idol judge Simon Cowell, who never even finished high school. Rhode Island State Representative Michael Chippendale is one of a small percentage of people who find success without a college diploma. Rhode Island Public Radio education reporter profiles the Republican state lawmaker for the final story in our series on college dropouts.

As a state lawmaker, Michael Chippendale is rarely off the clock. He's a hard worker. In fact, he can hardly remember a day in his life when he didn't work, starting from the time he was about 16, when he got a job at McDonald's.

"I've never ever not worked more than a full day," Chippendale says. "Except for the times I've been sick or in the hospital, I've always worked."

While he was a student at Johnston High School, Chippendale worked 30 hours a week to help his mom pay the bills. Life was a daily struggle, he says, after his dad left the family.

"Plenty of winters where we went without oil and took cold showers," Chippendale remembers. "My brother and I, who were 11 and nine, were splitting wood for the wood stove and I just became a very practical person."

Those days were hard, but Chippendale credits his mother with teaching him to give every job 100 percent. It's an attitude he says he now brings to his position as a Republican state lawmaker.

As the bell sounds for the start of a session at the Rhode Island House of Representatives, Chippendale heads past a row of tall, white marble columns to get to the House floor. He leans on a crutch because of Muscular Dystrophy, but he's not about to let that stop him from voting on a bill related to auto repair.

"Speaker I would like to be recorded in the affirmative on the board," he says into the microphone after getting settled in his chair.

Chippendale says the road he traveled to get to the Statehouse was not a straight one. After high school, he did a semester at the Community College of Rhode Island and then dropped out.

"I enrolled at CCRI because that's what I could afford," says the Republican lawmaker. "I drew the opinion that CCRI was nothing more than the 13th grade. It was like high school with ashtrays."

Chippendale admits the problem wasn't just CCRI; he didn't really know what he wanted to do with his life. He got a job as an auto mechanic until his mother convinced him to visit New England Institute of Technology.

"Speaking to the admissions folks and seeing the programs they had and then realizing that we could get financial assistance with the tuition, I enrolled in the bachelors program for mechanical engineering," Chippendale says, adding that the field fit well with his interest in drawing and understanding machines. "I was a typical boy in that I liked tacking things apart, but I was less typical in that I also liked putting them back together again."

Chippendale was so successful in his classes that he got a job offer from a Massachusetts manufacturing company before graduation. That job soon led to a better job and later his own company. He never went back to finish his Bachelor's degree.

"I think for a while I still thought I intended to go back and finish it," Chippendale reflects. "But after I started my small design firm, I was the company, and I loved it. I put everything I had into it, and at that point is when I said I don't need a college degree."

While Chippendale may not have needed a degree to become a successful businessman, these days most Rhode Islanders do.

"Post-high school at least some educational component with paperwork that documents that they've done it is now vital," says Chris Tanguay at the state's job counseling service. Tanguay says even an Associate's Degree can help, but to enter the higher echelons of the business world, most people need a bachelors degree at the very least.

"A four-year degree isn't mandatory, but if you want the better income then the four-year degree does become mandatory, and the higher up your education, that the better your income."

In the House Minority Office on Smith Hill, Chippendale makes a phone call on behalf of a constituent. This is a far cry from where he was five years ago, running a manufacturing company and pulling in a six-figure salary.

Chippendale's design and manufacturing firm took a big hit in the recession, and while he was struggling to save it, he started collapsing on the factory floor. That's when he found out he had muscular dystrophy.

In 2007, he decided to shut down the business and run for office, winning election as a republican in a district that includes Foster, Gloucester and Coventry.

These days, Chippendale makes $14,000 a year for his work as a state legislator. He has declined the state health care benefit, but he does receive some disability payments because of his health problems. Chippendale says his salary has decreased exponentially since the days before the recession.

"When your revenue goes from what mine was, which was very comfortable, to being really someone fighting every day to make it happen, it's challenging to say the least," Chippendale says, noting that his wife, who works in restaurant management, has now become the family breadwinner.

In some ways Chippendale's financial challenges mirror those of the entire Ocean State. With fewer and fewer manufacturing jobs, workers who never got their bachelor's degrees are now struggling to move into new industries. Chippendale says he still thinks a diploma is just a piece of paper, but when it comes to his own children, he's encouraging them to get one.

"The road to where I got and the road I traveled on was not easy," Chippendale says. "It was not anything that you can guarantee."

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