The eroding state support for higher education has local lawyer and well-known blogger Matt Jerzyk asking, Where's the outrage?
"Our state politicians are a bunch of cowards. They want to say they're not raising our taxes, but the reality is, for the majority of the middle class, taxes are going up: gas taxes, fees," Jerzyk says. "To be able to go to a Rhode Island college, you're now going to see a huge increase. Our leaders lack the political courage to say, 'We need to cut other things and make our students the first priority.' The governor's office and the legislature are the first to blame. These people need to be held accountable. Nowhere have I read that these emergency hikes are an outrage."
Purtill, of the NEA, agrees that state leaders must do more to recognize the connection between a strong economy and a well-educated labor force.
"When you talk about economic development, it starts with a highly educated population," Purtill says. "When you get to the point that Rhode Island kids can't afford to go to URI, CCRI, or RIC, there's a problem. One of the greatest things about RIC and CCRI especially is that they were supposed to be affordable. We can't let students that want to go to college become unable to afford it. I don't know how you let that happen."
The NEA has long been concerned about the dwindling state aid to the colleges and is planning to strongly oppose any additional aid cuts, Purtill says.
"We certainly don't support the governor's cuts to higher ed," Purtill says. "I see CCRI, for example, as a gem of Rhode Island because it provides everyone an opportunity to access higher education. But as these costs keep going up, it's going to be harder for Rhode Island kids to afford college."
Advocates say that the state's undocumented immigrant teenagers, in particular, have the hardest time affording college because they don't qualify for in-state tuition.
State Representative Grace Diaz (D-Providence) wants to change that. She's proposing the Student Equal Opportunity Act, which would allow students who graduate from Rhode Island high schools to be eligible for in-state tuition, regardless of their immigration status, so long as they become legalized. Critics have assailed the idea as giving a "free ride" to illegals.
Jerzyk, who has written blog posts supporting Diaz's bill, says it's shameful to deny Rhode Island high school graduates an affordable college education. Undocumented students from Providence's poorest neighborhoods aren't likely to be able to afford international-student tuition rates or the cost of attending college outside Rhode Island. Jerzyk says he knows of high school valedictorians who had to choose a low-wage job over college classes because their immigration status proved an insurmountable barrier.
"We as a state have a choice: We can choose to ignore them or support their path to college," Jerzyk says. "The great driving force of both the Rhode Island and the country's economy for the last 200-plus years has been the vision and entrepreneurial passion of the immigrant class. These are the kinds of students who could be the face of the renewable-energy revolution, the information-technology revolution, the builders of underwater turbines. We can take that passion and we can ignite it, or we can contain it and these students will be an anchor on the state. It's up to our state government to decide."