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More students at R.I. public schools despite cuts

With a $36 million budget decrease over the past two years, Rhode Island's three public institutes of higher education have been left with unfulfilled staff positions and falling financial aid per recipient despite rising enrollment.

The University of Rhode Island, the Community College of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College cumulatively enroll 43,412 students — a record high — according to a Nov. 9 press release from the state's Board of Governors for Higher Education. The figure includes a 488-student increase in URI's enrollment over last year.

Steve Maurano, the state commissioner for higher education, pointed to the recession as a major reason for high enrollment. 

"These trends are accelerated," he said. "Many people look at it as a good time to return to school."

Students are searching for more economical ways to get an education, Maurano added.

Not only are more in-state students enrolling, but many are first spending time at community college "to get a handle on what they want to study," he said.

But the institutions are also facing budget constraints and are leaving staff positions unfilled. After offering early retirement packages to employees, the institutions have left 330 (mostly staff) positions vacant — all of which they define as necessary — "in order to balance their respective budgets," according to the press release.

"The institutions are starting to stretch their capacity," Maurano said. "They're going to be at a breaking point very soon."

But as enrollment increases, financial aid has not kept up. "Students are getting hit at both ends," Maurano said — tuition rose 9 to 10 percent across the three schools, but as the financial aid budget was divided among a larger student body, the average package per student has decreased.

Still, Maurano said the state is committed to educating "as many Rhode Islanders as possible."

"I think it's critical that everyone receives some post-secondary education or training," he said. " The days of someone being able to carve out a living with a high school education are gone."



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