SOUTH KINGSTOWN — Current and former University of Rhode Island faculty and students, and also members of the general public gathered Tuesday evening to present their views on the affordability and accessibility of higher education to the House Commission to Study Public Higher Education Affordability and Accessibility in Rhode Island. The commission, led by state Representative Frank Ferri (D-Dist. 22, Warwick), is carrying out a public canvassing program, holding feedback sessions at Rhode Island College, Community College of Rhode Island, and URI in order to hear testimony from the concerned citizenry.
“The purpose is to make a comprehensive study, to examine other states’ efforts, and to consider best practices, providing feedback,” said Ferri. “We want to hear from those who are most affected by affordability and accessibility.”
Approximately 25 members of the audience spoke at the Alumni Center on URI’s Kingston Campus, each bringing their own story of their time at the university or the vital need for state support of public education. Many stressed the need for state support of public higher education amid rising tuition rates and costs.
“The university continues to deliver a high quality education while keeping prices down, and there is a lot of investment for the money that is spent,” said Joe Confessori, President of URI’s Alumni Association. “In order to maintain a competitive advantage, alums realize that further investment needs to be made. Smart Money Magazine ranked URI 13th in the nation, number one in New England among most affordable universities.”
“I am a 1996 graduate of the university, my wife is one, and I hope my children will be as well,” he added. “State, federal, and private help is crucial to the investment of the university and how well it is used in the community.”
Leo Mainelli, an engineering graduate of URI, related his own life experience about the importance families place on higher education, and how quality educators are crucial to a student’s development.
“My father came from Italy and it amazes me today the work ethic he had and emphasis he put on education,” said Mainelli. “I hit some potholes here and needed to take some summer classes. My professor mentored me and coached me when things got rough and convinced me to do finish. I can feel for the people who can’t afford to get the education that they want to have.”
“Every student ought to have the opportunity to have access to the education they need in Rhode Island,” he added. “We all know that hindsight is 20/20 and financial support of higher education has been decreasing every year for the past 20 years. I want us to look back in 2012 and say that’s when things began to change and improve. I hope it starts tonight.”
Current students also spoke to the struggles working for a college degree with limited resources from family and less state aid to cover rising university prices. Brittany Dobrzynski, a junior in Wildlife Conservation Biology at URI, stated that while the quality of her education has been excellent, she is concerned about her post-graduation debt and an uncertain job market.
“As a student who has signed off on my own college loans and is receiving limited financial support from my parents, I am working very hard to complete my Bachelors of Science degree as well as a double minor within 4 years,” said Dobrzynski. “The stress of such a loaded schedule, however, is nothing compared to the anxiety I feel about starting off in the world with such a great amount of debt and I know I am not the only student who feels this way.”
“This is the 10th year in a row that tuition has increased for both in- and out -of-state students,” she added. “For Student Senate, we created a petition displaying the student populations disapproval of tuition hikes and got overwhelming support from thousands of students in a short amount of time. As with the Alumni Chair who previously spoke, I too would love for my future children to graduate from URI one day, but with this ongoing trend of increasing tuition, I fear that dream will not be accessible or affordable.”
Lynn Derbyshire, Department Chair of Communication Studies, offered her experience with students who have struggled to complete their degrees because of financial constraints.
“I’d like to put a face on the problem of affordability,” said Derbyshire. “John started in the year 2000 on his college degree, and Anna, who started in 1998, is finally able to finish because she was recently laid off and uses unemployment. John and Anna needed somewhere between $3 and $5,000 to complete their studies. Their success is important to all of us.”
“When a first generation college student completes a degree, then their family is more likely to get one. Changing the trajectory of their families changes the trajectory of the community and thus the state. We have to make sure that these students are able to finish their degrees.”
Some educators who attended Tuesday evening challenged the commission to understand the multiple problems which underlie high student drop-out rates and failure at the university level. Cheryl Foster, Chair of the Philosophy Department at URI cited the critical baseline information, such as math and reading skills, which students have still not fully grasped as they enter into college.
“I think one of the most mitigating factors in higher education is ignorance to what they need to flourish when they get here,” said Foster. “I think it is important that we reckon with the facts we are up against. The average verbal SAT score was 495 in Rhode Island last year, near the bottom. The average math score was 493, truly rock bottom, with only 3 states below it.”
“One-fifth of URI freshmen are Pell grant-eligible and many reflect the first people in their family to go to college, and where English is not the first language spoken at home,” she added. “We’ve begun to address the realty of iniquities of entering into college, to remove bureaucratic barriers in students changing their major, and to take an honest look at how we broker and advise services, yet we need to do more. We need to open portals of success long before they get here and facilitate life-long learning as a partner.”
Nancy Eaton, Chair of the Mathematics Department, echoed Foster’s statements.
“URI’s mission is not remediation,” said Eaton. “Perhaps there is a way for students to get better prepared and not spend a whole year with tuition costs when for $2,400, they could do something before they arrive here.”
Other members of the audience spoke to the economic impact of the university in stimulating the surrounding communities for job growth, and the negative results when costs run too high.
“I believe some of the most critical issues result in the state’s lack of awareness,” said David Coates, President of URI’s Student Senate. “Rhode Island is ranked 42nd in the United States in state appropriations to higher education. It is not a coincidence where the state economy is. Our education is a necessity, and the majority of jobs will require, in essence, a Bachelors degree. Students struggle and work to buy books and eat.”
“The reality in 2010 is that graduates had an average of $22,000 in debt and walked away from the university with no guarantee of employment,” he added. “If the state wants something, it should pay for it, and it is paramount to the strategy for state education moving forward that there exists the ability to build strategic funds. Free us of the state bureaucracy.”
“During the last 30 years, the percentage of US national income of the highest one percent has increased from 10 percent to 20 percent,” said Peter Nightingale, Professor of Physics at URI. “Student loan debt exceeds credit card debt. We line the pockets of greedy, one percenters who contribute absolutely nothing to the education system. We need people to realize that most of the industrial world has free public education. It works. Stop supporting money-lending banksters. This is the elephant in the room that nobody talks about.”
The Commission, which will hold a similar public meeting at CCRI on Wednesday, February 15 from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., listened intently to the audience and promised to take their remarks to the state offices in hopes that further efforts can be made to improve affordability and accessibility to higher education in Rhode Island.
“It is really powerful testimony like this that make us sit back and say something needs to be done,” said Commission member Joy Hearn (D-Dist. 66 Barrington, East Providence).