RI Needs to support Higher Education for all
The rhetorical battle rages over providing the children of illegal immigrants an opportunity to attend Rhode Island public colleges and pay in-state tuition. RIPR’s Scott MacKay says this fight obscures an even bigger crisis in our state’s support for public higher education.
Governor Chafee’s support for in-state tuition for undocumented students has drawn brickbats from conservative Republicans and anti-immigrant activists and, of course, the Rhode Island Tea Party.
Chafee is being lambasted for making an end run around the General Assembly, which for years now has refused to approve, or even vote on, legislation that would have given these children a shot at a college education at the lower in-state tuition rates.
While leaders of the Latino community face off against the anti-immigrant voices flooding the talk radio airwaves, there is a deeper problem with the way our General Assembly has treated higher education in recent years.
Consider what has happened at the state’s flagship college campus, the University of Rhode Island. A state government cuts taxes for the wealthy and starves higher education can’t expect URI to maintain its historic mission of providing a path to the middle class for this generation of Rhode Island’s young people.
Since the Morrill Act was approved during the Civil War, URI and its sister land-grant universities have been the springboard of upward mobility, colleges where smart, diligent kids who weren’t wealthy could get a fine education at a reasonable cost.
When Robert Carothers took over as URI’s president in 1991, the state supported about 30 percent of the university’s budget. Now, his successor, President David Dooley presides over a URI that gets less than 9 percent of its budget from the state.
In 1961, just 20 percent of URI’s students came from outside the state. By 1981, that number was up to 30 percent. Now, about 40 percent of the students at our state university hail from outside the state’s borders.
There is no secret to why this has happened. As the General Assembly cuts money to URI, university brass have looked outside the state to bring in students who pay tuition and fees that are substantially higher than the rates given Rhode Islanders.
You can’t blame URI. When given the choice between cutting programs and lowering standards or bringing in more out of state students, university leaders have obviously chosen to recruit more of the higher-paying out-of-staters.
This is a sad and ultimately self-defeating strategy on so many levels. It may be a cliché to say that an educated person is more likely to have a good job and be a more productive citizen. But it happens to be true. The unemployment rate for college graduates hovers around five percent, far lower than the double-digit rates for high school graduates.
Rhode Island has the poorest educated work force of any New England state, except Maine. By slashing support for higher education, state government has done nothing but perpetuate our state’s reputation as New England’s Third World economy, with high unemployment rates and scant opportunity fore the young and ambitious.
Chafee deserves some credit for recognizing this problem. He tried to put more money into higher education in his first budget, but the Assembly sliced his request. On the immigrant issue, the governor has been pragmatic. In his letter to the Board of Governors for Higher Education, Chafee said one of the reasons he supports the in-state tuition plan is to strengthen our work force and help the economy.
The Tea Party complaints about the governor drip with hypocrisy. These folks (and the ProJo editorial page) say they are upset that the governor made an `end run’ around the General Assembly and used the Board of Governors for Higher Education to establish the new policy. This is one of those process arguments that so enamor activists. The fact is that people don’t complain about the process when it goes their way.
For example, there wasn’t a peep from these conservatives when former Gov. Don Carcieri used executive orders to advance his anti-immigrant policies when the General Assembly refused to approve them. Exhibit A was his policy that state vendors be subject to the E-Verify electronic data system. And Exhibit B was his state police crackdown on the undocumented, also done with an executive order.
As for the ProJo, the newspaper’s increasingly strident anti-immigrant stance is not worthy of a good newspaper. Since when should children be punished for the sins of their parents? And the use in editorials of the Orwellian term “illegal aliens’’ puts the paper in the same realm as the shrill crazies of talk radio. Managing decline and plunging circulation is not easy, but moving to mirror the views of Talk Show Nation doesn’t seem to be the path to regaining relevance for one of New England’s leading news outlets. We would like to think that Ed Achorn is capable of principled conservatism and is far better than sounding like John DePetro with a library.
If state lawmakers really want to forge a Rhode Island that can compete in the global 21st century economy, they ought to stop starving higher education, a crucial fulcrum for a better future for all Rhode Islanders, immigrant and native alike. URI ought to live up to its name as the University OF Rhode Island, not merely the University IN Rhode Island.
Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35. You can follow his political reporting and analysis at the `On Politics’ blog at WRNI.org.