Public colleges get the shaft

Fewer teachers. Bigger classes. More applicants. Huge tuition hikes. the outlook for Rhode island higher ed is bleak .
By MEAGHAN WIMS  |  February 25, 2009
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DREAMS DEFERRED Buonanno and Ahrens's future is being shaped by looming college debt and the country's recession.

When it came time to pick a college, Thomas Ahrens just couldn't pass up the relative affordability of a University of Rhode Island education. It was URI's price tag that sealed the deal for Ahrens and his family.

But Ahrens says he was forced to take out loans totaling $12,000 for his final two years after his tuition bill grew and his financial-aid package was squeezed.

Ahrens actually considers himself lucky; many of his friends will graduate with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. But as he closes out his final semester in Kingston, Ahrens's future is newly being shaped by his looming college debt and the country's recession.

It's gloomy times indeed for Rhode Island public-college students eyeing their bursar's bills and their job prospects. With the promise of a new semester last month came an unexpected, mid-year tuition hike that compounded students' worries about paying for college during the worst economic downturn of their lifetime.

That announcement of further cuts in the state's dwindling support for higher education — and a warning that another massive tuition hike may be coming — has highlighted the conflicting financial pressures on students, universities, and state government. And it has led to renewed calls for clear funding plans for higher education, with supporters emphasizing the link between a well-educated workforce and a strong state economy.

On the state's public-college campuses, professors report that more of their students are working evening jobs instead of studying. Some students are adding second, or even third, jobs to help pay for books, meals, and tuition. Students scheduled to graduate in May are suddenly considering pursuing advanced degrees, if only to hide away in the safe harbor of academia for a few more years.

At Rhode Island College, some students are reducing their course loads to save cash. In-state URI students are spending more weekends back at home, earning money at local jobs. Some lecture halls at the Kingston campus are bursting at the seams because state budget cuts have forced URI to reduce its teaching force and leave vacant positions empty, resulting in fewer class sections — just as enrollment has peaked.

The financial-aid offices at the Commu-nity College of Rhode Island are getting more applications than ever before, staffers say, as well as tuition waivers requested by the growing ranks of Rhode Islanders receiving unemployment benefits.

An annual financial-aid workshop at CCRI attracted more than double the usual number of attendees. Late last month, 200 high schoolers sought help with filling out those dreaded FAFSA forms at CCRI's "College Goal Sunday" event.

"The feedback we heard was, 'I couldn't have done this without you. It's such an overwhelming process,' " says Kristen Cyr, a CCRI spokeswoman.

URI students are angry about the Board of Governors for Higher Education's mid-year decision to raise tuition by more than 6 percent at URI, RIC, and CCRI, says Ahrens, the outgoing Student Senate president at URI.

"It's extreme disbelief and anger at the situation at this point," Ahrens says of the mood on campus. "What better investment is there than higher education? How are we expected to go to the workforce without it? It's tough for students right now."

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