Still, just as Rhode Island students most need affordable college educations, they're being asked to shoulder a greater burden of their tuition bills. According to data from the Board of Governors, the average Rhode Island student-loan amount is the second-highest in the country. Twice, the state has received a failing grade in the college-affordability rankings by the National Center for Public Policy in Higher Education.
And more families are seeking financial aid than ever before, says Greg Silva of the Rhode Island Higher Education Assistance Authority.
"This is my 20th year in financial aid and this is something I've never seen before," Silva says. "It just shows that because of the economy, people are really trying to do their homework. It's not so much that the funding has decreased, but the number of people who really need money has increased."
Federal loans are still available, but getting private loans is becoming more difficult, and students — who want to line up multi-year funding if possible — are finding grants and scholarships less reliable.
At CCRI, officials are doing more to promote their in-house scholarships and grants as the college is seeing more students who were priced out of RIC or URI, or who are returning to school to boost their resumes. This year, CCRI saw its third-highest enrollment ever. (The only higher numbers were during the recession and banking crisis of the early '90s.)
"Our enrollment isn't surprising given the state of the economy, as more and more people go back to school in times of trouble," Cyr says. "We see ourselves as a partner in the state's economy. Education is a way out for many people, who need to learn new skills or be trained in a whole new field."
URI is still relatively affordable compared to other major state universities. Its in-state tuition is the lowest in New England, and the school was recently ranked by SmartMoney magazine as 15th in the nation for return on investment, besting the University of Massachusetts and the University of New Hampshire. But, as experts point out, the median income is higher in those states than in Rhode Island.
It's time for state leaders to rethink how Rhode Island supports its higher-ed institutions, says URI economics professor Leonard Lardaro. Similarly, Larry Purtill, president of the National Education Asso-ciation of Rhode Island, says state leaders need to finally develop a funding formula not just for K-12 education, but for the public colleges.
Last month, Lardaro penned a Providence Journal opinion piece urging the state to raise the sales tax by 1 percent and earmark that additional revenue for all public education. He says his idea was intentionally provocative.
"I want to get people mad," Lardaro says. "We're in a serious, serious crisis."
Rhode Island's — and the nation's — culture is too "consumption-oriented," focused on the here-and-now, Lardaro says. State officials don't do enough to support long-term investments in education that would cultivate a stronger state economy through a better-educated workforce with more earning power (which would result in more income-tax revenue for the state).
"Higher ed has always given more value than we're getting," Lardaro says. "The future depends on what we do with higher education, and our state leaders are nowhere near to grasping that. They think higher education is just something you do. They don't make the connection."