Public colleges get the shaft

By MEAGHAN WIMS  |  February 25, 2009

The "emergency" tuition hikes couldn't have come at a worse time, with the recession already straining families' finances. But while state officials say they notice, their actions aren't helping.

As Frank Caprio, chairman of the Board of Governors, told the Providence Journal: "We know that it is the underprivileged students who are hurt the most by this. It is our job here on the board to make higher education more accessible and affordable for Rhode Islanders, and this does not make college more accessible or more affordable."

Board of Governors Commissioner Jack Warner says the board had little choice but to hike tuition when the state hit higher ed with an unexpected $12 million in cuts — this, after the colleges had already frozen positions, cut undersubscribed programs, and boosted class sizes to absorb a nearly $18-million cut. State support for URI, CCRI, and RIC now accounts for $150 million of the colleges' $850-million budget. The bulk of the schools' budgets are funded by tuition and fees.

The emergency tuition increases — translating to $250 more this semester for URI students and $200 more for students at both RIC and CCRI — generated $4.5 million in new revenue, just a portion of the $12-million shortfall.

The staff cuts and tuition hikes, ironically enough, come as the state's colleges are seeing steady enrollments and record applications from incoming freshmen.

"Obviously, we don't want to turn anyone away," Warner says. "It's very important that students have access to higher education. Particularly in a recession, students gravitate toward public colleges."

Student leaders from the three Rhode Island colleges banded together in December to protest the tuition hikes, and they're planning another State House rally in the coming months.

RIC student-body president Christopher E. Buonanno is leading a letter-writing campaign, urging students to tell State House lawmakers just how the economy and the tuition increases have affected them.

But student leaders say they feel almost powerless when it comes to effecting change at the highest levels of state government, where competing interests and an all-consuming budget crisis converge to make it all the more difficult for new, young voices to be heard.

"At this point," Buonanno admits, "nothing we've done has made a significant impact."

DREAMS DEFERRED Buonanno (left) and Ahrens's future is being shaped by looming college debt and the country's recession.

The state's investment in public higher education has dropped precipitously in the last three decades, so much that outgoing URI president Robert L. Carothers predicts that state support of higher education will have totally eroded by the year 2020 if the trend continues. While that prediction may seem far-fetched, state funding for URI's budget, for example, has dropped from 50 percent in the 1970s to about 12 percent this year. Just 2 percent of the entire state budget is directed to URI.

"The trends do concern us all in higher education," Warner says. "But it would be hard for me to imagine that public support for public higher education would get to zero. It is so much in the public's interest to have a highly educated society. Higher education can't just be reserved for the rich that can afford to pay."

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