26 Feb

Higher ed still hasn’t caught up — to 2007

It’s a sign of the problems higher education has getting the legislature’s attention that earlier this month, a pro-college demonstration by hundreds of students on the steps of the Capitol came at a time when lawmakers were somewhat distracted.

The same day, the governor was quitting.

Timing is everything – and in Salem, it rarely seems to be the time for higher education.

The subject is more likely to come up when the Legislature is looking for places to cut spending. Last year, the Center on Budget and Public Policy in Washington, D.C., calculated higher ed cuts by each state over the course of the recession, 2008-2914, and found that Oregon slashed its spending at the fourth fastest pace in the country, by 37.9 percent. Considering the state’s low position to start with, the move dropped the state from 46th in higher ed support to 47th.

We’re running out of states beneath us.

Meanwhile, back at the recovering state budget, just about all state programs have regained pre-recession levels, except for higher education. With inflation and increased enrollment, the seven university presidents calculated a $755 million appropriation to make the system whole – always a relative term around here – and neither the former governor’s budget nor the new Ways and Means co-chairs’ budget gets even close to $700 million.

This gave the students a lot to discuss with the legislators, except that day everybody was watching not higher ed but lower ethics.

Plus we’re a year closer to 2025, the year when Oregon is supposed to have 40 percent of its adults with at least a four-year degree and another 40 percent with at least a two-year degree or a skill certificate.

“Part of what we have to do,” said Oregon State president Ed Ray recently, “is make sure we match the rhetoric with resources.”
In higher education, matching rhetoric with resources has never been Oregon’s major.

To Portland State president Wim Wiewel, even $755 million wouldn’t get the system and his university back to the pre-recession per-student support level – and it’s a long way from a real 40-40-20 strategy, which would require increasing student population by 25 percent.

Moreover, the additional students, not previously on a straight college path, would be more expensive for universities to attract and support to graduation – which is not a theoretical issue.
“If we don’t get them out of the door to a degree,” says Oregon Tech president Chris Maples, “they’re worse off than if they hadn’t gone to college.”

Because even without a degree, they have acquired debt.
These days, the state has set off on another higher ed strategy, deconstructing the state university system and giving each institution its own board of trustees. The effort was driven by the University of Oregon with the expectation, which seems to be working out, that it could raise a lot more in private contributions on its own.

Nobody expects this to be true of the four smaller universities, Western Oregon, Eastern Oregon, Southern Oregon and Maples’ Oregon Tech, with limited fund-raising capacity and a loss of significant support services previously provided by the statewide system. Millions in increased costs put a sizable additional burden on institutions already seriously squeezed, especially Eastern and Southern.

The four TRUs (technical and regional universities) together enroll about 20,000 students, close to the equivalent of one of the state’s three major universities. They draw a larger percentage of first-generation and place-bound students; another financial strategy unavailable to them is attracting large numbers of non-Oregonians ready to pay lucrative out-of-state tuition.

In addition, points out Maples, “It costs more to do things in rural settings,” which can lack services such as public transit.
Asked about the additional challenges to the TRUs, Ray says, “I think they should be worried. I think I’m the only guy who said we should not take the system apart.”

Wiewel agrees that the previous system involved considerable hidden subsidies to the smaller universities, in areas such as insurance and payroll services. He doesn’t object to the support, but declares. “It’s not reasonable to say that students at PSU should pay for that.”

Protecting the regionals would be a vital part of any 40-40-20 strategy, as well as recognizing the system resources that would be required. But before even thinking about that, Oregon would need to get its higher education support level back up to what it was in 2007 – back when we at least knew it was inadequate.

And maybe the next time students rally at the Capitol, they can address the same governor all day.

NOTE; This column appeared in The Oregonian, 2/25/15.