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.
DREAMS DEFERRED Buonanno and Ahrens's future is being shaped by looming college debt and the country's recession.
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."
The "emergency" tuition hikes couldn't have come at a worse time, with the recession already straining families' finances. But while state officials say they notice, their actions aren't helping.
As Frank Caprio, chairman of the Board of Governors, told the Providence Journal: "We know that it is the underprivileged students who are hurt the most by this. It is our job here on the board to make higher education more accessible and affordable for Rhode Islanders, and this does not make college more accessible or more affordable."
Board of Governors Commissioner Jack Warner says the board had little choice but to hike tuition when the state hit higher ed with an unexpected $12 million in cuts — this, after the colleges had already frozen positions, cut undersubscribed programs, and boosted class sizes to absorb a nearly $18-million cut. State support for URI, CCRI, and RIC now accounts for $150 million of the colleges' $850-million budget. The bulk of the schools' budgets are funded by tuition and fees.
The emergency tuition increases — translating to $250 more this semester for URI students and $200 more for students at both RIC and CCRI — generated $4.5 million in new revenue, just a portion of the $12-million shortfall.
The staff cuts and tuition hikes, ironically enough, come as the state's colleges are seeing steady enrollments and record applications from incoming freshmen.
"Obviously, we don't want to turn anyone away," Warner says. "It's very important that students have access to higher education. Particularly in a recession, students gravitate toward public colleges."
Student leaders from the three Rhode Island colleges banded together in December to protest the tuition hikes, and they're planning another State House rally in the coming months.