A sensible solution to tuition waiver dust-up

Feb 13, 2013

Governor Lincoln Chafee seems to have hit upon a simple solution to the tuition waiver issue at state colleges and the University of Rhode Island: require recipients of the waivers to disclose them publicly.

The free tuition plans for faculty families and several other categories of Rhode Islanders became an issue after a Providence Journal investigation revealed that URI allowed an employee of the privately run Institute for International Sport to obtain full tuition by misclassifying her as a university employee.

The tuition waiver program, a common benefit for state university faculty members and families throughout the nation, ought not to be considered in the same vein as the doomed institute, which has sparked an investigation that will probably result in criminal charges against director Dan Doyle and perhaps others.

A state audit showed that problems with the waiver program are not widespread. The governor was obviously correct when he stated that any abuse of the program is unacceptable. He was also on point when he told the ProJo that he thought abuses were worse than the audit revealed.

The audit showed that out of $9.2 million in tuition waivers granted during the fall of 2011 and spring 2012, that just $80,611 in waivers were improperly granted due to weakness in internal controls. That is a much smaller total than some of the hyperbolic headlines would have us believe.

Some perspective is required here. The isolated instance of improperly granting an employee of the ill-fated Institute for International Sport is obviously not the way URI handles the overwhelming majority of tuition waiver requests. There is also no widespread fleece of the taxpayers in this program. (The Institute for International Sport is a different matter entirely; there was clearly an abuse of public money, both state and federal, as documented by the ProJo, particularly reporters Kathy Gregg and Tom Mooney).

URI gets just 7 percent of its operating budget from the state. Our state’s flagship land-grant university is on its way to becoming the university in Rhode Island, rather than the University of Rhode Island. That is arguably a bigger problem that the tuition waiver program.