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Underfunded for decades, URI has enrolled more higher paying out-of-state students than in-state students. Now it’s at a crossroads.

As the General Assembly starts to take up the state budget, the University of Rhode Island is looking for help, seeking to bolster its status as a top-flight research institution

People walk along the Dieter Hammerschlag Mall on the campus of the University of Rhode Island in Kingston, R.I.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — In recent years, the University of Rhode Island has increased its enrollment of out-of-state students. In part this was a financial strategy: Out-of-state students pay more than double the tuition and fees of in-state students, which helps make up for the fact that by some accounts, URI is among the most underfunded flagship state universities in the country.

This year, for the first time ever, the public university reached something of a crossroads: There are now more out-of-state students at the University of Rhode Island than there are students from Rhode Island.

The strategy of increasing out-of-state enrollment, URI now says, has exhausted itself. And the university is looking elsewhere for help as it seeks to bolster its status as a top-flight research institution. One of those places is the state budget, which is currently running a large surplus and a seemingly even larger wish list for investments around the state. The university’s leaders requested a $32 million increase in funding for general operations – or $123.3 million of the state budget, up from from $91.3 million in fiscal year 2023 – an increase of about 35 percent. It also requested $122.8 million in funding for capital projects.

That would help make up for inflation, start to bridge the gap after years of disinvestment, and help tackle new initiatives, like supporting everything from the blue economy to students’ mental and physical health, the university said.


Governor Dan McKee, in a budget proposal unveiled last month, proposed an increase to $99.2 million in operating funds, or about an 8.5 percent increase. That’s slightly higher than the inflation rate in 2021 and 2022. The nearly $100 million in proposed funding compares to about $76.8 million in the 2021 fiscal year, according to the Department of Administration. For capital projects, of the $122.8 million request, McKee proposed $57 million.


Will that be enough?

“It’s a step in the right direction, but no, it’s not enough,” URI President Marc Parlange said in an interview, citing factors like increasing costs. “It doesn’t allow us to be able to start to make the investment that we need to make in the university to develop the research and the innovation.”

URI leaders emphasize that they value their out-of-state students. That diversity “enriches the academic experience for all students,” URI says. And the increase in their enrollment wasn’t merely a response to underfunding, but also to projections of a decline in the number of Rhode Island high school graduates in the decade ahead.

But the tipping of the balance raises challenging questions about the university’s priorities — it’s Rhode Island’s university, as Parlange is fond of saying — and its finances, serving as an anecdotal data point after decades of underfunding.

Parlange said the university would continue to work with the state General Assembly, which must pass the budget before it becomes law, to try to get legislators closer to its funding goal. Parlange said he believes the governor and House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi want what’s best for URI and the state, and he said McKee has been a good partner in URI’s efforts.

But he also said: “There’s quite a bit of room that we need to be able to catch back up in, and really have the kind of state university that the citizens of Rhode Island deserve,” Parlange said.


The stakes are high, not just for high school seniors around Rhode Island who may one day wear Keaney blue, but for the state’s economy, blue and otherwise.

According to the university, adjusted for inflation, URI saw a 37 percent drop in state appropriations between 2004 and 2020, while student enrollment has increased by 33 percent.

By almost every measure, funding for URI is below its New England peers, the university said, causing maintenance to be delayed and putting millions in research dollars out of reach. It still managed, the university said, to do consistently more with consistently less, especially with the academic experience. But URI would like to be doing more with more. And because of budget issues, it falls short in non-academic areas, like HR professionals, student affairs, and co-curricular opportunities.

National data supports the claim of historic underfunding in public higher education in Rhode Island. According to data from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, Rhode Island appropriated about $6,000 per full-time public university student in the 2021 fiscal year, compared to a national average of more than $9,000. Only five states had lower appropriations. According to a report by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Rhode Island ranks dead last in the country in the annual change in state funding per student since 1980.

Supporters of more funding for higher education in Rhode Island tend to point to places where things are working well — California, Massachusetts, North Carolina — which all have above-average funding for universities, data shows. Tom Giordano, the executive director of a Rhode Island business roundtable, said one of his board members, Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan, often talks about the value of the University of North Carolina to the Charlotte-based bank.


“And that’s what we hope for URI — enormous value to the future employment of Rhode Islanders,” Giordano, of the Partnership for Rhode Island, said.

“You have to applaud Governor McKee for putting money where the mouth is,” Giordano added. “It’s Parlange’s job to ask for the moon, and not get it and go back next year and ask for the moon again.”

McKee took office as governor in 2021, the same year Parlange — a globetrotting academic who was born in Providence — was hired from Monash University in Australia.

In a statement, the McKee administration was largely in agreement on one thing: There has been a “historical underinvestment at the University of Rhode Island.”

The Department of Administration called his proposed boost to $99.2 million a “major increase for URI.” In addition to the $99.2 million for general operations — think of this as a catch-all line item for URI to pay for what it needs — the budget lays out a path to get to $177.5 million in funding for capital projects from this budget year through 2028 — think of this as a line item for major initiatives, like new construction.

“This is a significant step toward addressing the historical underinvestment,” Department of Administration spokesman Derek Gomes said in an email.


URI gets its funding from numerous sources. Students pay tuition and fees, which accounts for $250 million in URI’s budget. (URI remains more affordable compared to New England peers, URI emphasizes — $35,804 in undergraduate tuition and fees for out-of-state students, $16,408 for in-state ones.)

Federal dollars also flow directly to URI and other universities. Fundraising represents another chunk. In November, voters approved a $100 million bond to overhaul the Bay Campus in Narragansett, a hub for blue economy work. The university also put in for a $78 million federal grant for similar work, which it did not get. (URI says one consequence of its limited budget is less staff that can help with grant writing.)

The money that this story is about is the money in the state budget, which is noteworthy right now because the General Assembly is starting to take it up.

Michael McNally, the vice chair of the URI Board of Trustees who has lately been critical of McKee, acknowledged that a lack of robust support from the state budget is a long-running problem. What’s new, McNally said, is that there are now resources to actually fix it: a big budget surplus and a lot of federal aid, including through the American Rescue Plan Act.

“We’re historically underfunded, and we had an opportunity here we’ve never had before,” McNally said. “And we didn’t take it.”

Not everyone is so sure there was an easy solution. McKee “deserves credit for proposing significant increases in operating spending for higher education, and also for proposing a relatively large increase for the University of Rhode Island,” Michael DiBiase, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council think tank, said in an email.

McKee’s proposal of a nearly 9 percent funding boost for URI compares to an increase in higher education spending of 6.8 percent and an overall revenue spending increase of 5.2 percent, although URI, of the state’s three higher education institutions, has the most potential to bring economic benefits, DiBiase said.

A more than 30 percent funding boost would be difficult to do given a relatively tight revenue picture; a lot of the extra cash in the budget is one-time surplus money, DiBiase said.

“That being said, since Rhode Island’s higher education expenditures are over 30 percent below the US average, a 30 percent increase in funding for URI is not unreasonable as an objective,” DiBiase said. “However, instead of trying to achieve this increase in one year, it would be more prudent to have a plan for an increased level of investment over a period of years.”

URI does indeed have a long-term plan, and it goes beyond just this year’s budget request. The 10-year Focus URI plan was unveiled earlier this month at Parlange’s state of the university address.

The plan lays out a number of goals that defy easy summation, but would, in short, enhance “Rhode Island’s university,” as Parlange calls it. Like a request for a 35 percent funding boost, it’s bold and ambitious.

“The University of Rhode Island will serve as a national model for how a flagship public research university can drive transformative change for the betterment of its state and the global human condition,” Parlange told attendees at his address on Feb. 1.

In a Q&A with Laurie White, a URI grad who’s the president of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, Parlange addressed students and faculty and spoke about everything from his long-term vision for the university to his hopes for the upcoming women’s basketball team game later that night.

“I would never bet against us,” Parlange said.

Later that day, URI team beat St. Joseph’s, 77 to 73, in an overtime thriller.

Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.