making college affordable for all rhode islanders

Frank Caprio, Chair of the Board of Governors for Higher Education
and Jack Warner, Commissioner of Higher Education

Is higher education affordable for Rhode Islanders? The most recent news on this topic is relatively good. Everyone who cares about the education of talented young adults in our state should be saluting Governor Carcieri and the General Assembly for holding Rhode Island’s state support for higher education steady and for doubling the state’s investment in our state financial aid program this year while many other states experienced startling reductions in state funding. As a result, the Board of Governors for Higher Education is proud that despite skyrocketing tuition increases this past year in the nation (average 14% increases) and neighboring states (12.6% in Connecticut and 15.4% in Massachusetts), the public higher education system in Rhode Island held its costs quite steady (5.9% increase). Until this year, however, our record has not been as good.

The fact is that despite the most recent effort to make college affordable, Rhode Island twice has received an F in affordability on the national report card produced by the National Center for Public Policy in Higher Education. The average amount of a Rhode Island student loan is the second highest nationally. Every year, the prospect of graduating with staggering loans frightens away talented students from lower income families.

How did Rhode Island find itself in this unenviable position? A recent front-page Pro Jo article alerted readers that nationally the average cost of tuition and fees (calculated on inflation-adjusted dollars for 2003) is 47% higher at state supported four-year institutions than a decade ago. Over the past 25 years, states have reduced their investments in public higher education, resulting in a downward spiral. Loss of state support in combination with the influx of low-income families in states such as Rhode Island has resulted in tuitions that are increasingly out of reach for lower income students. The data tell the story of how Rhode Island lost ground in its effort to keep a college education affordable: In 1978, states invested $10.56 per $1,000 of personal income in their public higher education systems. At that time, Rhode Island’s investment was $10.21 per $1,000. By 2002, nationwide states’ investments declined 30% to just over $7.35. Rhode Island’s investments were significantly poorer, however, declining by nearly 50% to $5.30. In 2001, Rhode Island ranked second most expensive nationally in percent of family income needed to pay for tuition and fees at a public college or university. Neighboring states in New England may charge higher tuition and fees, but their median family incomes are also higher. The effect is that in Rhode Island a comparatively greater percent of students are locked out of higher education for financial reasons.

Many believe that bright students can always find ways to finance their college educations. In fact, the poor are significantly less likely to earn a college degree than the wealthy. Data from a recent study indicate that 76% of students who are in the top fifth in achievement as well as in the top fifth income bracket earn a four-year college degree. In contrast, only 36 percent of students who are in the top fifth in achievement but in the bottom income bracket earn a degree. To make a difficult situation worse, poor children are often faced with not just the costs of their educations but also the expectation that they will continue to help support their families. Imagine working multiple part-time jobs to help support siblings, taking a full load of college classes, and carrying hefty loans. The prospect is not the idyllic scenario that many remember fondly as the college years. As a result, highly talented children enrolled in our public schools will not earn college degrees simply because they cannot afford them. As a state competing in a global economy, Rhode Island cannot afford to leave behind these talented students and deny them – and their future families -- a route to a quality life.

A quality life means – among other things – a good job and money to spend on activities that contribute to our quality of life. States need an educated population to provide workers in the service industries that are becoming the greatest suppliers of good jobs. According to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, projections of occupational employment in Rhode Island through 2008 show that the majority of job growth will occur in executive, managerial, professional, marketing/sales, and service sectors. These jobs require high levels of educational attainment. Without a steady supply of educated workers, the state will lose some of its service industries and its tax base. Rhode Island also needs an educated populace to support the culture that Rhode Islanders enjoy. Rhode Island is rich with galleries, museums, restaurants, and theatres, all of which depend on an educated citizenry for ongoing support. And we need to support an affordable pathway to this goal for all of our young people.

The Board of Governors for Higher Education actively supports Rhode Island’s “all kids” agenda that demands the same high-quality standards for instruction and for graduation regardless of a youngster’s socio-economic background. This ambitious agenda is meant to ensure that all youngsters who have the sure-fire combination of ability and interest will be academically ready to enroll in one of our state’s institutions of higher education after graduating from high school. Readiness, though, requires more than commitment and ability. Will all kids be ready with the necessary dollars in their hands and loans and grants in their back pockets?

Rhode Island deserves to celebrate the fact that the state’s most recent track record on tuition and fees is better than that of regional and national peers. However, in order to maintain this commitment to the future, Rhode Island needs to invest in its human capital by continuously improving overall state investment in public higher education. Rhode Island needs to do so for its quality of life and for all the kids and the future generations of Rhode Islanders whom they will raise.

 

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Last updated January 11, 2006