Government, Media, and Data: Rhode Island Higher Ed Funding


It’s becoming increasingly important for the news media to start looking for holes in what government spinmeisters tell them.

Take, for example, a tweet from Providence Journal reporter Lynn Arditi, which WPRI reporter Dan McGowan retweeted and which turned out to be a tease for an article on today’s front page. The spin should be, frankly, offensive to anybody who pays taxes in Rhode Island.  The basic message of the tweet and the article is that the heavily taxed people of Rhode Island are not sufficiently subsidizing college students (whatever they may happen to be studying) and their administration-heavy schools.  Not only are there giant monuments of missing context, but the dollar amounts about which we’re supposed to be concerned are laughable.

The bulk of the information comes from The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS), which has just released nationwide data on student debt.  The report shows Rhode Island (including private universities and colleges) as the fourth-highest-debt state, at $31,841.  It’s important to note, though, that RI drops to 14th-highest for the percentage of students who have any debt at all.

Arditi focuses on public colleges and universities.  “The average student debt among the state’s four-year public college graduates in the Class of 2014 was $29,076 — the ninth-highest in the country.”  By contrast, the “average debt of Connecticut public college graduates was $24,831 — ranking 32nd nationally and the lowest of New England’s public colleges.”

Playing with TICAS’s more-detailed search tool, one can see that Rhode Island’s high number comes mainly from the University of Rhode Island, with its $30,731 average student debt (versus $25,567 at Rhode Island College).  Well, according to U.S. News & World Report, in 2008, enrollment at URI was exactly half from out-of-state students, which is seventh highest on that list.  Not surprisingly, the core public university of Vermont, the state topping Arditi’s tweeted chart by a large margin, also tops the out-of-state enrollment list, at 74%.

The University of Connecticut? Just 33% out of state.  Rhode Island’s margin for out-of-state students, versus Connecticut, is larger than its margin for student debt.  And let’s be honest: The difference between the ninth-highest debt and the 32nd highest is all of $4,245 on a loan to be paid off potentially over decades.  Rhode Island’s state and local tax burden is the eighth highest in the country, and the people shouldering that burden are supposed to feel guilty that out-of-state kids studying who knows what might have to pay a few hundred dollars more per year on a loan (which we probably subsidized on their behalf, at the federal level)?

Come on.  If Rhode Island’s commissioner of post-secondary education, Jim Purcell, who made $174,471 in fiscal year 2015, really finds this “troubling,” he should push for RI’s public colleges and university to trim their rippling administrative fat.  In the meantime, journalists should stop helping government big-wigs push for more and more money based on well-spun data and, instead, take up the cause of the people who are trying to raise families and build businesses in Rhode Island.

UPDATE (10/30/15 9:49 a.m.):

If you’re interested in more detail, check out CollegeXpress.  The site puts URI’s out-of-state enrollment at 44%, but it puts UConn’s at just 21%.  Meanwhile, URI’s in-state tuition is actually a little lower than UConn’s, while UConn’s out-of-state tuition is a lot higher.

  • Mike678

    Spot on. It is the rare journalist that looks beyond the facade to address the root cause. Much easier to play the victim and blame someone else.