The economy, or rather the lack of jobs, returning veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the need to learn new job skills are some of the reasons Community College of Rhode Island President Ray Di Pasquale accounts for the highest spring enrollment he’s seen in his 35-year career as a college administrator.
“It feels like fall enrollment; nothing has ever happened like this,” Di Pasquale told members of the CCRI Foundation Friday.
As of that morning, 17,129 had enrolled for the spring semester. That’s 456 more than enrollment last spring and is expected to go even higher by the start of the semester.
“These are huge numbers. It’s all great news,” Di Pasquale said. “The college is bursting at the seams.”
Traditionally, enrollment is higher in the fall semester and that could happen again this year. For the moment, however, the school is experiencing a tremendous demand. A lot of it is coming from the areas of training and continuing education, the president said.
Di Pasquale also credited the influx of students to costs. In spite of a 7.5 percent tuition increase, he called the $3,900 cost “a deal of a lifetime.”
The college has a high level of military service veterans – an estimated 800 – and operates one of only eight veteran success centers in the country, reminded Edna O’Neill Matteson, the college’s director of facilities and a member of the trustees. Another trustee, who has likewise had a long career with CCRI, Mary Benton, thought that the college has established its reputation and shed the negative image reinforced by the name Rhode Island Junior College [RIJC] or commonly referred to as “reject.”
“There’s no more stigma. It’s disappearing,” she said.
Di Pasquale credited Gov. Lincoln Chafee for reversing the recent trend of budget cuts to higher education.
“Last year he stopped the slide,” he said of increased appropriations to CCRI, Rhode Island College and the University of Rhode Island.
Last year Chafee asked legislators to increase the state allocation to higher education by $10 million, but that was whittled down to an increase of $4 million.
In the upcoming budget, Chafee recommends $152.8 million for the system, which would essentially level fund the institutions and the office of the Board of Governors for Higher Education. The office budget reflects an increase of $5 million for student grants formally managed by the Rhode Island Higher Education Assistance Authority. Under the governor’s budget, following a recommendation drafted by a study committee headed by Director of Administration Richard Licht, the authority is folded into the Board of Governors.
Di Pasquale, who also serves as the commissioner of higher education, attended Chafee’s State of the State address last Tuesday. He characterized Chafee’s speech as “very precise,” adding that the governor has made education a high priority. His budget calls for an additional $38.5 million for elementary and secondary education and as a means of providing property tax relief to cities and towns.
Di Pasquale urged foundation members to lend their support to Chafee’s budget and education funding by speaking to their state legislators.
“He gets it,” Di Pasquale said of Chafee, “more than anyone I know.” The comment was in reference to the linkage between education and putting people back to work.
With the receipt of a $3.4 million federal grant, Di Pasquale said the college is experiencing a shift to that of training the workforce. Areas of job training, he said, are in health care, information technology, biotechnology, investments and finance.
Asked whether the college is exploring additional fields, Di Pasquale said the college is highly receptive to developing new courses and curriculum to meet workforce demands, but it can’t do that solely on expectation.
“We’ve got to know where the jobs are,” he said.
Foundation members also asked Di Pasquale whether he thought there could be a reconfiguration of the governance of education in the state.
Di Pasquale acknowledged he has heard many rumors, including the consolidation of the Board of Governors for Higher Education and the Board of Regents that oversees the Rhode Island Department of Education. He didn’t offer an opinion on how that might work out.
“I don’t know the answer,” he said.
He pointed out that the House Commission to Study Public Higher Education Affordability and Accessibility, chaired by Rep. Frank Ferri of Warwick, is looking into some of these issues.
The commission is meeting tonight from 5 to 7:30 p.m. in Room 135 in the State House and again Feb. 15 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Newport Campus of CCRI.