URI: University in RI or University of RI?

Aug 23, 2013

Even President Obama is talking about rising college tuitions as students return to campus. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay  talks about what this all means for our flagship public university, the University of Rhode Island.

The days are getting shorter, the breezes off our cobalt coastline are cooler. The rhythms of fall return. In our cozy corner of New England, a timeless harbinger of the season is students thronging college campuses.

Behind the teary parental goodbye hugs and lugging the laptops to the dorm looms an uneasiness in the realm of higher education these days. Students loaded down with mountains of debt graduate into an uncertain economy. ``Do you want fries with that diploma’’ is the gallows humor of our age.

From Kingston comes the news that 50 percent of incoming freshmen at the University of Rhode Island are from outside our state. That is a startling change from the university’s historic mission of educating working and middle class Rhode Islanders.

In 1960, 20 percent of URI students hailed from outside the state. By 1981, that number climbed to 31 percent. Last year, about 40 percent of students were out of staters.

The reasons for this are not complicated. It all comes down to money. As the General Assembly and former Gov. Donald Carcieri slashed state funding for URI, university brass had a Sophie’s Choice: admit more out-of-staters who pay substantially higher tuition or dumb down the university by cutting programs and laying off professors.

URI obviously made the choice to take in more students from outside Rhode Island. In 2002, Gov. Lincoln Almond’s last year in office, URI received $84 million from the state. This year, the university will get $58 million in state support. In 1991, the state contributed about 30 percent of the URI budget; that figure is down to 8 percent.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee is a URI supporter and his budget did increase support by $6 million for higher education, meaning that in-state tuition was frozen at the state’s public colleges. But a sluggish economy has decreed that the state cannot do much more for the state colleges without raising taxes, which no one in our political leadership has an appetite for in the recession.

An educated society leads directly to a better economy and a more thoughtful and enlightened civic culture. This has been an essential chapter of American scripture since the Civil War, when the Morrill Act establishing state land-grant universities was approved.

But the history of URI and most of the other New England state universities was always fraught. With the exception of Vermont, all of our region’s flagship state colleges are not located in either the state capital or in its largest city.

New England’s tradition of strong private colleges has long meant that much of the business and political elite did not attend state universities. In the ancient port capitals of Providence and Boston, political and economic leadership has long been divided by grads of Ivy schools Brown and Harvard and those who earned their degrees at such fine Catholic institutions as Boston College and Providence College.

While URI is more than a century old, just one governor – Almond – was educated in Kingston. Two of the last three governors have been Brown grads. General Assembly leaders, such as Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, are much more likely to have been educated at PC than URI. Even the state’s favorite college basketball team is the Providence College Friars, not the URI Rams.

Yet, for decades, URI grads have been prominent contributors to Rhode Island’s economy. Al Verrecchia of Hasbro, Tom Ryan of CVS, Bob Russell of RUSCO Steel, Richard Beaupre of Chem Art and Sandra Glaser Parrillo of Providence Mutual Fire Insurance are just a few of the state’s top executives who are URI alums.

URI has the smallest endowment of any New England state university. University officials must obviously do a better job of raising money. As is the case in any large bureaucracy, efficiencies can be found. Some of us wonder why URI spends so much money and devotes so many scholarships to a football team that rarely wins a game.

A Rhode Islander who attends URI is more likely to stay in our state and contribute to our economy and civic culture than the students from New York and New Jersey who get their education here and flee the day they get their degrees.

It would also be nice if URI could trim some of the cushy benefits to long tenured professors who teach part-time and spent their final years before retirement collecting bloated salaries. Given age discrimination laws, this isn’t easy but the glut of older teachers hanging around makes it difficult to hire young scholars.

In-state tuition at URI is $12,450 this year. That’s high by the standards of Connecticut and Massachusetts yet lower than New Hampshire or Vermont.  URI in-state tuition is up about  50 percent over the past five years, a sharper hike than any other state in the region except New Hampshire.

With half the new students from outside our state, URI has the largest percentage of out-of-staters than any New England state university except UVM, which started as a private university and is one of the nation’s oldest colleges.

Rhode Island is a tiny state and can’t solve the national student debt crisis. But we could do our economy and younger citizens a lasting favor by investing  more in our state university before it becomes the University in Rhode Island rather than the University of Rhode Island.

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 at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org