Why more out-of-state students are attending URI

KINGSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — The numbers are clear: with each passing year, the University of Rhode Island is made up of fewer and fewer Rhode Islanders, and the state’s declining number of high school graduates may be a big reason why.

Eyewitness News reviewed 10 years of enrollment data for flagship state colleges and universities across New England. And while the number of out-of-state students has increased at every school we checked, we discovered that URI has seen one of the biggest increases.

In 2006, 61% of URI undergrads were in-state students, and 39% were from out-of-state. By 2016, those numbers had shifted to 56% in-state, and 44% out-of-state.

Here’s how URI’s 44% out-of-state students stacks up with other flagship state schools in New England:

Out-of-State Undergrads in 2016

University of New Hampshire: 54%
University of Rhode Island: 44%
University of Maine: 31%
University of Connecticut: 23%
University of Massachusetts Amherst: 23%

The University of Vermont did not reply to our information request. We checked and found no New England state has a law requiring public colleges and universities to have a certain percentage of in-state students enrolled.

Dr. Dean Libutti, URI’s Vice Provost for Enrollment Management, said a big factor in the increase in out-of-state students is a shrinking pool of Rhode Island candidates.

“One thing we’re experiencing in Rhode Island over the past several years is a decline in the number of traditional high school students graduating,” Dr. Libutti said.

According to data from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, in the 2006-07 school year there were 11,966 high school graduates in Rhode Island. By this year, that number had dropped 15% to 10,158 high school graduates. In 10 more years, it’s expected to drop even further to 9,974.

URI gets about 22,000 applications every year. That means even if every single high school graduate in Rhode Island applied, they’d still make up fewer than half of all applicants. In reality, the number is much smaller.

“While I’d love to get every high school graduate applying to the University of Rhode Island, the reality is we get about 4,000 of those who graduate,” Dr. Libutti said.

Libutti said the school’s standards for admitting in-state applicants are exactly the same as those for out-of-state applicants.

“It’s not a decision to admit one over the other,” Dr. Libutti said. “We admit the same percentage of students in-state as we do out-of-state.”

According to data from the school, over the past two years URI has admitted in-state and out-of-state applicants at the exact same rate. In 2016, the school admitted in-state applicants at a rate of 72%. Out-of-state applicants were also admitted at a 72% rate.

In 2015, both in-state and out-of-state applicants were admitted at a 73% rate.

Make no mistake – out-of-state students are big business for URI, with an annual tuition of $28,874. That’s more than double the in-state rate of $12,884. Those numbers do not include the average room and meal plan, which account for an additional $12,300, according to URI’s website.

When asked if URI is targeting more out-of-state students because their tuition comes with a higher price tag, Dr. Libutti was adamant that money is not part of the school’s decision process.

“We accept any Rhode Islander who applies to the University of Rhode Island if we feel they can be successful,” Libutti said. “When it comes to our competitive programs, whether it be nursing and pharmacy and engineering and others, we actually first read our Rhode Islanders because we understand the important access mission we have as a state university.”

That “access mission” is a major part of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s economic plan. The governor has stated several times that Rhode Island needs to battle the so-called “brain drain” by attracting and retaining college graduates. However, the continuing decline in local high school graduates means URI has had to adapt and expand its recruiting approach.

“We have certainly worked on our efforts to enhance recruiting,” Dr. Libutti said. “You’ll see us a little bit more in the Pennsylvania, Southern New Jersey and Maryland areas that we haven’t been in in the past.”

Dr. Libutti also said URI has several programs aimed at keeping out-of-state graduates in Rhode Island for the long haul.

“We have over 9,000 students doing experiential education, internships and volunteer work, and they’re gaining experience in Rhode Island, and that’s leading to employment in Rhode Island,” Libutti said. “We have over 4,000 engineering majors who graduated who are living in the Ocean State and nearby areas. Many of them came here to school from out-of-state and are staying here.”

Libutti also said URI has expanded its recruitment of older Rhode Islanders. According to URI, right now there are about 120,000 adults in the state who started college but never completed their degree.