URI’s humble beginning belies its impact as engine of economic growth

The University of Rhode Island, the state's current Land, Sea and Urban Grant public research institution, had humble beginnings as the state's Agricultural Experiment Station and agricultural school chartered in 1888. 

Using funds from the Federal Act to Establish Agricultural Experiment Stations, state, municipal, and private matching funds were raised by local citizens in South Kingstown, including Jeremiah Peckham, Jr., Thomas G. Hazard and Bernon E. Helms, the Kingston postmaster. For a total of $5,000, the 140-acre Oliver Watson Farm was purchased as a site for the experiment station and school. The old farmhouse, now restored and listed as an historic landmark, still stands on the campus (from 

It was a humble beginning to be sure. A beginning that contradicts the University of Rhode Island’s impact as an engine of economic growth for the state. But, an engine of economic growth, it is.
Sharon B. Bell, CPA, CFE, is the Controller at the University of Rhode Island. She is a numbers person. She and her staff of nearly 60 professionals oversee the school’s accounting system, general ledger, accounts receivable, accounts payable, sponsored and cost accounting, cash management, fixed assets, student loans, payroll and tax compliance. According to the Controller’s office, URI has annual revenues and appropriations of over $490 million and approximately $795 million in assets. Those are the internal, measurable numbers. But to understand URI’s true overall impact on our economy, one must look deeper.
The mission of the Controller’s Office, according to Bell, is to “ensure the integrity, accountability and efficiency of the University by working collaboratively with University departments and other state agencies to provide accurate and timely accounting, auditing, payroll and financial information in a courteous, cooperative and cost-effective manner.”  It is an office replete with numbers. It is not an office responsible for touting the enormous economic impact URI has on the state economy. 

But sometimes numbers tell a story that needs to be told. For URI, this is just such a story. Consider, that according to a recent economic impact study, the University of Rhode Island is not only a massive economic enterprise on its own, its reach into a wide array of industries give strong credence to the idea that it is a powerful engines of economic development. For make no mistake. The farmhouse has grown. 


  • The University of Rhode Island is a major enterprise in its own right, with operating revenues in fiscal year 2012 totaling nearly $469 million* – more than half of which are derived from sources outside the state.
  • In the fall of 2012, URI employed 3,675 people (excluding students) at its four campuses, 65 percent of whom worked full-time.
  • In fiscal year 2012 URI spent $45 million on purchases of goods and services from businesses and institutions in Rhode Island, directly supporting more than 300 full-time-equivalent (FTE) jobs.
  • URI spent $86.4 million in fiscal year 2012 on construction and renovation of campus facilities, including $57.2 million paid to Rhode Island-based contractors – directly supporting 429 FTE jobs in construction and related industries.
  • Taking into account direct University spending on payroll, purchasing and construction, off-campus spending by out-of-state students and visitors, and the indirect and induced effects of this spending, we estimate that in fiscal year 2012 URI directly and indirectly accounted for: 
    • More than 8,200 jobs – about 1.9 percent of all wage and salary employment in Rhode Island;
    • $392.6 million in wages; and
    • $726.4 million in statewide economic output.


There is also an element of human capital, in which URI, as the leading provider of four-year undergraduate and graduate education to Rhode Island residents, plays a central role.  

  • As of the fall of 2011, 16,654 students were enrolled in for-credit programs at URI, 61 percent of whom were Rhode Island residents, and 39 percent of whom came to URI from other states.
  • Between 2006 and 2011, enrollment at URI grew by 8.3 percent – an increase of 1,265 students.
  • URI offers students a wide range of opportunities to prepare for careers in industries and occupations that play a central role in Rhode Island’s economy, in fields such as engineering, biotechnology, health care, ocean science, international business and many others.
  • As of the summer of 2012, more than 48,400 URI alumni lived in Rhode Island – a number equivalent to approximately 22 percent of all Rhode Island residents with at least a four-year degree.
  • We cannot say with certainty how many of URI’s in-state alumni would not have earned a four-year or graduate degree without the opportunities that URI provides. However, if we assume that half of these 48,400 URI graduates would not otherwise have been able to earn a bachelor’s or graduate degree, we can estimate that in 2011 the education that URI provided to its alumni living in Rhode Island: 
    • Added more than $500 million to these graduates’ aggregate earnings; and
    • Added approximately $3.5 billion to Rhode Island’s gross domestic product.
And lastly, there is the enormous economic impact that goes hand-in-hand with an institution driven by its research: 
  • In fiscal year 2012, research spending at URI totaled $100.2 million – an increase of 64 percent since fiscal year 2007. During a severe and prolonged recession, URI research has thus represented a notable area of growth for Rhode Island.
  • The federal government accounted for 80 percent of URI’s research funding in fiscal year 2012; and state and local government funding accounted for 16 percent.
  • Research conducted at URI is helping to discover and develop the new knowledge that in the years ahead will provide a foundation for economic growth in areas such ocean science and technology, offshore energy development, the life sciences, nanotechnology and cyber security.