In the past decade, the paradigm of higher education in the United States has shifted. Colleges were once seen as a haven for the intellectual elite, but now, college education has seemed more and more a skeptical decision in the face of a faltering economy. Now, Rhode Island College is feeling the brunt of the changing postsecondary landscape, with a shrinking student body impacting the operations of the college.
As the years pass since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, RIC has been beset with a shrinking student body, forcing the college to consider difficult decisions, such as layoffs and budget cuts. This comes despite RIC’s reputation as the most affordable four-year college in the state of Rhode Island. It’s no surprise that the environment of higher education has been altered over the course of the pandemic, and institutions have made it a priority to resume business as normal as soon as possible. If they haven’t yet, RIC is certainly learning that the times are anything but normal. If the school wishes to thrive again, nothing less than a radical reevaluation of tertiary education is necessary.
Tackling an issue such as shrinking student enrollment, one may immediately think of the elephant in the room: Why aren’t students enrolling in college? The true answer is more intricate than at first glance. It is, in fact, a multitude of interconnected reasons. College tuition prices have continued to skyrocket while wages fail to keep pace with inflation. Compounding this, prospective students are beginning to doubt the effectiveness of a degree to glide them into their career path of choice, and fear that attending postsecondary schools will simply be too stressful an addition to their lives.
Diminishing enrollment rates, while not universal across the nation, are apparent enough where one must view issues like this in a broader sense, as opposed to only school by school. Governmental actions making access to tertiary education, such as President Biden’s stalled student loan forgiveness, are the most encompassing ways to repair the issue and encourage students who have given up completing their degrees to return to school.
However, in the midst of a lack of educational reforms by the federal government, colleges like RIC must begin transforming their outlooks on operations on their own. This can be done in the most immediate sense by increasing affordability from the bottom-up, and revamping their modus operandi from a school that gives all-around education to a school that glides students straight into the workforce.
Though RIC prides itself on its cost-effective tuition rates, being the cheapest public college in the state hardly means being easy on a prospective student’s wallet. In the 2021-22 academic year, RIC had an in-state tuition rate of $10,702, a 24% increase in tuition from the five years prior. RIC’s own statistics indicate that the entire freshman class of 2021-22 received financial aid in some form, with 62% receiving loans to pay for their education. In an economy where 63% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, straddling one’s self with burdensome debt for decades to come is a tough sell when blue-collar jobs are offering the most immediate financial incentives.
This is not to discount the fact that RIC is affordable, as being the cheapest public college in the state is an achievement in itself. However, the enrollment rates at RIC compared to other institutions show that while offering inexpensive tuition is a value, it is not enough. Brown has had a 9% increase in applicants, and URI has kept a steady, yet stagnated, flow of new enrollees. Along with its affordable nature, positioning RIC as a school that will ensure students a clear pathway to their career can satiate the uneasy prospective student base and give the college a leg up against their contemporaries.
Data collected from potential students have indicated that they seek college degrees primarily for access to jobs, and that large amounts of college graduates end up working in positions where bachelor’s degrees are inessential. This is where RIC can outshine their peers; revamping their outreach to their student base through the school’s Career Services department can carve the college a considerable niche. If the school considers measures to restructure their operations towards preparing students specifically for their potential job fields, combined with large-scale career guidance connecting soon to be graduates to their fields through networking, RIC’s enrollment woes can be undone within years.
In the end, the statistics do not lie. The pandemic has rapidly changed the model of what students expect from postsecondary education, and it’s up to colleges and universities themselves to guide themselves through this shift. RIC, in this regard, faces an inflection point. As the world of higher education changes rapidly around them, they can structure themselves towards a return to normal, being the same normal that induced their hemorrhaging of students. Or, they can use this moment to change what being an Anchor really means for their student body’s education, career and livelihoods. The choice, in the end, is theirs.