Enrollments at all three of Rhode Island’s public colleges are declining, including at the Community College of Rhode Island, which has reported an upsurge in the number of recent high school graduates enrolling under a free tuition program.
The New England Board of Higher Education reported Wednesday that the majority of New England’s public colleges have seen a drop in enrollment from fall 2017 to fall 2018. The number of high school graduates in the region is declining significantly. Enrollments are expected to drop by 14 percent overall between 2017 and 2032.
Rhode Island College has seen a 4.9-percent drop in the last year, one of the greatest declines of any college in the region.
The University of Rhode Island has experienced a decline of 1.7 percent, and CCRI has dropped by 1.6 percent.
The numbers seem to fly in the face of CCRI’s success with Rhode Island Promise students, recent high school graduates who receive two years of free tuition as long as they maintain a C-plus average and enroll full-time. The college said its enrollment of Promise students has doubled since the program began in summer 2017.
But enrollments of students in every other age group have declined over the last year, according to data provided by CCRI to the New England Board of Higher Education.
For example, the number of part-time students between the ages of 20 and 24 has dropped from 3,394 to 3,008. The number of full-time students in that age group declined from 1,510 to 1,426. And declines were also reported for part-time students between the ages of 25 and 34 — from 2,809 to 2,709.
CCRI spokeswoman Amy Kempe said the enrollment decline can be attributed to fewer students graduating from high school, as well as the strength of the economy. When the economy is thriving and unemployment is low, as it is in Rhode Island, adult learners tend to work rather than go to college.
The college also said it’s faring better than other peer institutions in New England, but New Hampshire’s community colleges posted enrollment gains of 3.4 percent.
“In most states, the community college system is fractured, with multiple smaller colleges spread out across the region, in essence competing with one another,” Kempe said. “In Rhode Island, the centralized structure of one college with four campuses allows the college to operate more efficiently … and more easily absorb the slight decline in enrollment.”
She acknowledged that CCRI has benefited from the Rhode Island Promise scholarship program. Although fewer students are graduating from high school, Kempe said, “a greater percentage are choosing to begin their higher-education path at CCRI because of the value and quality of education it offers.”
Rhode Island College had the largest decline of the eight New England colleges cited in the report.
“We’ve had a 10-year enrollment decline that we’ve been trying to turn around,” said Jason Meriwether, vice president for student success. “One of our biggest demographic challenges is that 70 percent of our graduates are from Rhode Island. Other institutions may rely on students from out of state.”
Meriwether said RIC is working hard to improve not only recruitment but retention, adding that the college has 110 more students enrolled for fall 2019. “Promise has had an obvious impact,” he said, “but we have bigger issues than Promise.”
He said the school has made it easier for CCRI students to transfer credits to Rhode Island College, offering 13 majors where students can seamlessly transfer to RIC as juniors if they complete their work at the community college level. The majors include accounting, biology, business management and psychology.
The college has also offered more tutoring and evening courses to accommodate students who are juggling work and college, with the goal of increasing the number of students who finish college. Currently, the retention rate is about 75 percent.
URI experienced a slight dip in 2018 because 2017 had marked a record high enrollment for the school, said Donald DeHayes, provost and vice president for academic affairs.
“We’re seeing the highest applicant pool in our history,” he said Wednesday. “We’re pleased with where we sit.”
The university is relying more on recruiting out-of-state students, with 45 percent of its enrollment coming from non-Rhode Islanders. But DeHayes said the actual number of Rhode Island students attending URI is similar to what it was 10 years ago.
DeHayes and Dean Libutti, vice provost for enrollment management, said the university is working harder to recruit transfer students, and it has created new majors in international studies, business and criminology to make it more attractive.