College is getting more expensive in the State of Oregon. Over the last five years at the University of Oregon, in-state tuition has increased from $5,526 to $7,277 per year (PDF), about a 32 percent increase. Out-of-state tuition has gone up about twice as fast. In 2011, then-UO President Richard Lariviere tried to change the dynamic by seeking out more independence for UO. But his endeavors led to a prompt firing by the Oregon University System board. But the incident may have been a wake-up call for the state authorities in Oregon. This year could end up being a revolutionary year for higher education in the state and a lot more financial aid for college students.
Much potential state aid for students is tied to the man himself, Governor John Kitzhaber. The Eugene-native’s current term has been marked by an “education first” agenda with bold goals. By 2025, Kitzhaber envisions (PDF) that “40 percent of adult Oregonians (will) have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, that 40 percent (will) have earned an associate’s degree or post-secondary credential, and that the remaining 20 percent or less (will) have earned a high school diploma or its equivalent.” The plan has met almost no resistance and been endorsed across the state.
To make this dream reality, he has proposed in his new budget a Department of Post-Secondary Education that would be in charge of distributing state funds to public universities and community colleges, including to the University of Oregon.
The department would combine the Department of Community Colleges and Workforce, the Oregon Student Access Commission and the Higher Education Coordinating Commission into a single organization with a leadership appointed by Kitzhaber.
Under the centralized management of DPSE, public universities would be pulled into serving Kitzhaber’s plan to graduate 80 percent of Oregonians with degrees in higher education and the state would make the necessary investments in scholarships and aid programs.
“Achievement compacts” (PDF) would be used under the budget to grade university performance toward achieving the goals of the state, which include “… student success in completing bachelor’s and advanced degrees, the extent to which newly admitted freshmen enter with college credits, the success of community college transfers in obtaining four-year degrees and success of OUS graduates in the workforce.”
What do all those goals have in common? Employment and fulfilling the 40-40-20 plan. Research and the prestige of public universities aren’t on the list. Even with some state funding restored to universities, the sticker price on going to college will probably continue to rise.
“We don’t have any control over how much tuition costs,” Kitzhaber said during a recent visit to Eugene. Tuition in Oregon is set by universities working with the State Board of Higher Education, which approves the final tuition rates.
“What we are doing is we’ve increased resources for financial aid,” he said. “But we do want to try and break that cycle where financial aid is matched by rising tuition.”
Part of those resources will come from the state Opportunity Grants in the governor’s budget which will expand to $113.4 million (PDF). The DPSE will be awarding that money in $1,800 increments over the next two years.
An even bigger source of state aid could come from the “Opportunity Initiative,” proposed by state Treasurer Ted Wheeler, which could make Oregon a national leader in helping residents afford post-secondary education.
Wheeler would have the state invest $500 million in bonds in 2014 — and additional money over the next 30 years — to establish a fund capable of generating enough interest every year to “fully fund the unmet needs of every Oregon student for two years of their post-secondary education.”
His plan will be put to the state legislature this year and, if passed, would go to a state ballot.
Coming on the heels of the proposed budget was the announcement in December that the state legislature will be creating a new standing committee on Higher Education, co-chaired by Michael Dembrow, a community college professor. The new house committee will consider legislation affecting student aid, public scholarships, textbook subsidies, financial aid, tuition rates and questions of access. The committee is a long time coming; California has had a higher education committee since 1991 and Washington since at least the late 1970s.
Higher education used to be occasionally contemplated in the Oregon legislature’s education committee, which spent much more time on K-12. Even the sub-committee on higher education, formed in 2007, met irregularly and did little to address the feelings of neglect simmering on college campuses. The new committee — which doesn’t include any representatives from Eugene or Lane County — will examine everything to do with universities and colleges in Oregon.
The committee is just one way the State of Oregon is playing catch-up with its peers. The state’s public universities have lagged behind the West Coast in almost every measurement for decades. While California was building perhaps the greatest public university system in the world and Washington was pouring millions of dollars into building its research street cred, Oregon’s higher education puttered along unloved, unrenowned and unremarkable. Now maybe that might finally change.