URI students from R.I. are bearing the brunt of increases in tuition, fees

By Lynn Arditi
Published April 22, 2014

By Lynn Arditi
Journal Staff Writer

The University of Rhode Island has raised tuition and fees for Rhode Island residents during the past five years at more than triple the rate of increase for out-of-state students, according to an analysis of data from the New England Board of Higher Education.

In 2013-14, tuition and fees for in-state students at URI came to about $12,450, the NEBHE data shows. That’s 43 percent more than the $8,678 URI charged them in 2008-09. By contrast, the university raised prices for out-of-state students during the same five-year period by 13 percent, to just over $28,000.

After years of boasting the lowest in-state tuition and fees of any of New England’s public universities, URI — which froze tuition for all students through 2014-15 — now falls smack in the middle of the pack.

How the university prices its institution is part of a strategy all public colleges wrestle with as they try to offset cuts in state support while remaining competitive with their peers.

“There is a market driven dimension to all of this,” said Donald H. DeHayes, provost and vice president for academic affairs at URI. “Our instate tuition was disproportionately low compared to our peers, so we had some room to make that up.”

But URI’s prices for students from outside Rhode Island in 2008-09 were “at the top of what URI’s out-of-state market would bear,” DeHayes said. “We felt if we had raised tuition on the out-of-state market at that time … it would actually result in a loss in enrollment.”

About 60 percent of URI’s students come from Rhode Island, and 40 percent from outside the state — a ratio that has remained largely unchanged for at least six years, he said.

Keeping prices affordable for Rhode Island residents without pricing itself out of the market for students outside of the state requires “a very delicate balance,” DeHayes said.

Other public universities around New England have engaged in a similar balancing act, said Monnica Chan, director of policy and research at NEBHE. “We’re seeing that a lot of New England public institutions are recruiting a lot of out-of-state students,” Chan said. “That’s particularly the case for flagship institutions.” At some of these universities, she said, the out-of-state students generate the majority of the institutions’ tuition and fee revenues — money that may then be used to help financially needier students.

“States have been abandoning public higher education support in favor of health care and corrections costs,” Tom Mortenson, a policy analyst and senior scholar at The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education in Washington, wrote in an email. The sharp decline in state appropriations in Rhode Island and other states, he said, has resulted in a “huge growth” in universities’ reliance on tuition revenues.

In Rhode Island, tuition and fee increases have been driven in large part by $26 million in funding cuts to URI between fiscal 2007 and 2010, said DeHayes.

The state’s contribution to URI for fiscal 2014 represents about 9 percent of the university’s budget — compared with 17 percent in fiscal 2007, according to URI spokeswoman Linda A. Acciardo.

The state’s appropriation to URI is designed as an instate tuition subsidy, DeHayes said, to enable the university to keep its tuition for residents low. But as that subsidy has shrunk, he said, “the message to us was [that] we needed to make up some of that loss in the state appropriation by increasing instate tuition.”

The sharp price increase for Rhode Island students comes as a sluggish job market and stagnant household incomes have made paying for college increasingly difficult for many families. The state median household income during the most recent available five-year period has grown less than 2 percent.

URI officials say that increases in financial aid to needy students has also helped offset the cost of higher tuition and fees. Financial aid to all URI students increased 78 percent since fiscal 2009, DeHayes said, and 94 percent since fiscal 2008.

“So basically while tuition was increasing,” DeHayes said, “so was our investment in aid — at an even higher rate — to ensure that families with financial need still have access to the state flagship university.”

For students in Rhode Island who want to attend URI but don’t qualify for financial aid, there’s also another, cheaper route. Rhode Island is one of three New England states (the others being Massachusetts and New Hampshire) that offer tuition discounts to students who transfer to its four-year public university from a two-year college.

In Rhode Island, 53 percent of all first-time undergraduates who attended college in the state enroll at the Community College of Rhode Island, according to NEBHE. (The data is for the fall of 2012, the most recent available.)

“There are lots of reasons students will chose to go CCRI,” DeHayes said. “But there’s clearly — and we support this — a very good pathway for students from CCRI to the University of Rhode Island.”

About 23 percent of URI’s graduating class each year are transfer students, he said, and “the biggest pool of those students come from CCRI.”