Students, faculty offer gripping testimony of need for support of higher education

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Stories highlight struggles, triumphs of those facing crushing financial burdens

KINGSTON, R.I. – January 26, 2012– An hour before President Barack Obama spoke to the nation Tuesday night, members of the University of Rhode Island community told a state commission how declining support for higher education has placed crushing financial burdens on students and has hampered innovative faculty.

About 90 faculty, staff and students were in attendance, as about 25 offered testimony that would foreshadow similar themes discussed by the president in his State of the Union address.

Professor Lynne Derbyshire, chair of Communication Studies, offered some of the most compelling testimony about three, first-generation Rhode Island college students during the hearing before the Special House Commission to Study Public Higher Education Affordability and Accessibility in the State of Rhode Island.

“John started at URI in 2000. He is able to finally finish this semester because he now has a full-time job with an employer who will pay the tuition for his remaining classes,” Derbyshire said.

“Anna began at URI in 1998 and will finish this semester because she was laid off from her job; since she is on unemployment her tuition will be covered for her courses,” the professor said.

“Luis began in 1996. He took last summer and fall off from classes and saved enough money to attend full time this spring (while working) and finish.”

Derbyshire has stayed in contact with these students throughout the 12 to 16 years they have worked on a college degree and each will graduate in May.

“They have remained committed to completing their degrees and they have worked hard to do so; harder perhaps to pay the tuition than to complete the coursework.”

John and Anna needed only between $3,000 and $4,000 to finally finish, but that was an insurmountable amount of money for them, Derbyshire said.

“When a first generation college student gets a college degree, it increases the likelihood of her or his siblings and cousins and children getting college degrees. Educating a first-generation college student changes the trajectory of the family, and that is fortunate for the family. But additionally, changing the trajectory of the family changes the trajectory of the community, and ultimately the trajectory of the state.”

Brittany J. Dobrzynski, a wildlife conservation and biology major, told the group she has been receiving a great education at URI, but is worried about the financial burden on students.

“Wouldn’t maximizing students’ potential include affordable tuition that will not leave students with insurmountable debts in student loans?” she asked. “As a student who has signed off on my own college loans and receiving limited financial support from my parents, I am working very hard to complete my bachelor of science degree, as well as a double minor, within four years. 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.”

Paul Langhammer, senior associate director of Enrollment Services, read testimony prepared by his colleague, Bonnie A. Saccucci, also a senior associate director of Enrollment Services.

Langhammer read a quote from an earlier government report on college affordability. “Low family income, together with the rising costs of education, constitutes an almost impassable barrier to college education for many young people”—From the Truman Commission Report, Entitled Higher Education for American Democracy,” 1947.

Saccucci said in her written testimony that there has been a major shift in attitudes toward funding a college education, with responsibility shifting from society to individuals and their families.

“This has resulted in reduced state appropriations, and higher loan debt burdens for students and their families,” she said. “However, we feel strongly that reducing college access and affordability is counterproductive not only to our state, but to the nation as a whole.”

The fastest growing part of URI’s budget is financial aid, which reflects the University’s commitment to making a University education affordable.

“Unfortunately, even our financial aid commitment has funding limits, and we would need over $20 million of additional aid to meet 100 percent of the Rhode Island student need,” Saccucci’s statement said. “URI’s institutional financial aid is over $75 million per year and almost $20 million more than the state appropriation ($57) million to the University.”

After the forum, some may have turned on their TV sets to hear Obama discuss critical higher education issues as well, saying one of the most daunting challenges for young people and their families is paying for a college education.

“At a time when Americans owe more in tuition debt than credit card debt, this Congress needs to stop the interest rates on student loans from doubling in July,” he told the assembly in Washington. “Extend the tuition tax credit we started that saves middle-class families thousands of dollars. And give more young people the chance to earn their way through college by doubling the number of work-study jobs in the next five years.

Obama then asked states and universities to do their part to solve the problem. URI has become more efficient in the wake of difficult economic conditions while preserving its core missions of teaching, research and service.

“Of course, it’s not enough for us to increase student aid,” Obama said. “We can’t just keep subsidizing skyrocketing tuition; we’ll run out of money. States also need to do their part, by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets. And colleges and universities have to do their part by working to keep costs down. Recently, I spoke with a group of college presidents who’ve done just that. Some schools re-design courses to help students finish more quickly. Some use better technology. The point is, it’s possible. So let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down. Higher education can’t be a luxury – it’s an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford.”

Read coverage of this event in the Good 5¢ Cigar.

Pictured above

COMPELLING TESTIMONY: University of Rhode Island Professor Lynne Derbyshire, chair of Communication Studies, offers testimony Tuesday night during a public hearing at the URI Alumni Center on college affordability and accessibility.

MAJOR IMPACT: University of Rhode Island students pay close attention to testimony during a public hearing run by a special state commission examining college costs.

COST TO A STUDENT: Brittany J. Dobrzynski, a wildlife conservation major, talks about the stress caused by impending loan payments when she graduates.

URI Department of Communications & Marketing photos by Michael Salerno Photography