Scott MacKay Commentary
3:35 pm
Thu April 24, 2014

Scott MacKay Commentary: More At URI Than Meets The Eye

Colleges, even state colleges, are too expensive and beyond the financial reach of some students. Rhode Island Public Radio political analyst  Scott MacKay on why college is still a great investment, both for taxpayers and students.

University of Rhode Island's North Kingstown Campus
University of Rhode Island's North Kingstown Campus
Credit RIPR FILE

Fast upon us 'tis season of Lilacs, caps and gowns and those desultory commencement speeches about life being a journey. For too many seniors these days, the sheepskin comes with an avalanche of student loan debt.

The Rhode Island media has made much recently of the rate of in-state tuition increases at the University of Rhode Island, the state’s flagship public university. Tuition and fees for Rhode Island students at URI have jumped 43 percent since the 2008 and 2009 academic year. At the same time, tuition and fees for students from outside the Ocean State have climbed by just 13 percent.

In an era when too many working-class families cannot afford to send their children to URI, much has been made of whether spending money on a college education is even worth it. Well, there is one thing  that for most students is far worse than forking out all that money for college. That’s not doing so.

Let’s look at this from a purely economic stance. The latest data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reveal that for most workers aged 25 and over, there is an iron link between education and employment.

The national unemployment rate for those with a bachelor’s degree is 4 percent. For those with only a high school education, it is 7.5 percent. And for workers who dropped out of high school, the jobless rate is 11.5 percent.

The unemployment rates for those who go beyond a bachelor’s degree are even lower. Just 2.2 percent of workers with doctorates are out of work. For those who earn a professional degree, such as in law, medicine or business, the jobless rate is 2.3 percent.

As far as money goes, the relationship between education and a worker’s earnings is in ever sharper contrast. Maybe all you need to know is that the median weekly income of a college grad with a bachelor’s degree is about $1,100. For high school graduates it is $651. Those who dropped out of high school earn just $472 weekly.

Anyone who believes you can decently support a family on the earnings of a high school graduate or drop out believes the earth is flat.

This doesn’t mean college is for everyone. Many Rhode Islanders put food on their family’s tables because they have jobs that don’t require college but do involve learning skills  beyond high school. Many union building trades workers are doing well. And everyone seems to know a plumber who earns more per hour than their kid’s pediatrician.

As for URI, a history lesson is in order. In 1960, 20 percent of URI students came from outside the state. By 1981, that figure was 31 percent. Now about 40 percent of the students at the Kingston campus are from out of state. That trend is continuing; the class that entered URI last September had half Rhode Islanders and half from out of state.

Why has this happened? Well, a big part of the answer is that while our neighboring states of Connecticut and Massachusetts were investing millions in state money to their state schools, former Gov. Donald Carcieri and the General Assembly slashed aid to URI. Between 2007 and 2010, more than $26 million was cut from the state’s contribution to URI.

So what were URI administrators supposed to do? They could have cut programs and dumbed down the university. Or they could raise tuition and fees and admit more students from outside the Ocean State. That seems like a no-brainer choice to those who run URI.

At the same time that Carceri and lawmakers slashed state support to URI, they cut income taxes for the wealthy. The tax cuts were supposed to fuel economic growth. How do you think that’s worked out in a state that still has the country’s highest unemployment rate?

Gov. Lincoln Chafee has turned things around somewhat. On his watch, money has been restored to the university and he is asking the Assembly to approve putting to voters this November a plan for a bond issue to upgrade URI’s engineering programs.

Public investment in colleges is, of course, about a lot more than money. An educated state leads not only to a better economy, but also to a more reasoned and thoughtful civic and political culture. State universities have always been the fulcrum of social and economic mobility for working-class Americans. This has been American doxology since the Civil War, when the Morrill Act creating land-grant state colleges was approved by Congress.

A Rhode Islander who graduates from URI is more likely to remain in the state – or leave and return- than a student from New York, New Jersey or Ohio. Yet with 50 percent of the new students from outside the Ocean State, URI now has the largest percentage of students from outside the state than any other New England state university except for the University of Vermont, which was founded in 1791, began as a private university and is one of the nation’s oldest colleges.

As far as increasing tuition on students who don’t hail from Rhode Island, URI is obviously constricted by market forces. Other state universities who have undergone declining state support during the recession are avidly recruiting higher tuition payers from outside their borders.

This isn’t to say that URI officials can’t help fix this. For too long, our state university has lagged behind its New England neighbors in fund-raising; URI has the smallest endowment of any New England state university. As is the case in most large bureaucratic institutions, efficiencies can likely be found. And some of wonder why URI spends so much and gives so many scholarships to a football team that rarely wins games or attracts many fans. UVM and Boston University are two examples of New England schools that have eliminated football without suffering any decline in reputation or student applications.

And the university could also avoid such headline grabbing insider deals as the one given to former URI vice-president and Democratic Congressman Bob Weygand that made URI officials appear to be wasting money.

It is profoundly sad that the rate of growth in the budget of the ACI has increased faster in recent years than outlays to URI. Our state can choose to invest in URI. Or we can choose ignorance and its orphan child, economic stagnation.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35 and on All Things Considered at 5:50. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at the `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org.

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