21 Apr

On higher ed, Oregon legislature always means well

You couldn’t really say that this session of the Oregon legislature has been ignoring higher education. Legislators have been having policy debates, discussing efficiency strategies and developing a bill to protect the regional universities from the last round of policy debates and efficiency strategies.

It’s just paying for it all that’s a complication.

So you can’t say legislators can’t identify with Oregon’s college students, who have the same problem.

House higher education committee chairman Tobias Read, D-Beaverton, and vice-chair Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, are pursuing a bill to expand the use of on-line open-source textbooks. This could be a considerable benefit, since the typical chemistry or art history textbook price is now deep into three figures, an amount enough to interest a pawnbroker.

Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, has a useful bill to protect the regional universities from the strains of system reorganization, guaranteeing shared services support for the next several years, providing at least a temporary lifeboat in the stormy seas of every-university-for-itself.

The legislature is proceeding steadily on a Higher Education Coordinating Commission plan to base university funding on degrees granted rather than enrollment. The idea is to encourage universities to move students to graduation, and that’s hard to argue with, unless maybe you’re the NCAA.

But in the long tradition of Oregon higher education policy, this is one more example of carefully rearranging too little money. When last seen, Oregon was 47th in the country in its per capita support of higher education, and once again tries to restructure its way out of a financial dead end.

Before the session, Oregon’s seven public university presidents calculated that the universities would need $750 million to get back to the level of state support before the recession, an objective that higher ed has had particular problems reaching. It’s a shimmering goal, although the universities now enroll 20,000 more students than they did in 2007.

With a small boost by the Ways and Means co-chairmen over the original governor’s budget, the state now has its universities on its 2015-2017 books for $670 million.

“We are not in a position to make a game-changing investment in education,” said Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, House Ways and Means co-chair, last week. “Given that framework, we still must do everything we can to bring community colleges and universities along.”

Still, the budget noise around the Capitol, coming out of all party caucuses, is about the need to increase the $7.255 billion budget for K-12.

“Higher ed doesn’t have the lobbying to compete with K-12,” notes Whisnant. “Higher ed is like mental health. We come in each session and say it deserves the spending it needs, but it never gets it.”

One persistent argument behind this condition is that universities, and community colleges, can always raise tuition, an option not available to prisons and middle schools. This spring, higher education has again been exercising this option.

Portland State plans to raise its tuition by 4 percent and the University of Oregon by 3.7 percent, and both board meetings were marked by demonstrations by students against the increases. Oregon State is increasing by 7.6 percent, although that’s part of a long-term project to match tuition more closely to credits taken. Oregon Institute of Technology is seeking a raise of 5 percent, and Southern Oregon by almost 5 percent, which could be a complication for a university that’s had enrollment issues.

College tuition will, of course, rise regularly. But once again in Oregon, it’s rising notably faster than the inflation rate, making access just a bit more daunting.

With little unassigned money floating around the Capitol, and the kicker looming ever closer, a quick sizable infusion seems unlikely. The only loose change floating around might appear in the May budget forecast, with 40 percent already pledged to K-12, and less loud enthusiasm for funding classes for people very close to paying taxes themselves.

Last week in higher education, the University of Oregon announced a new president stressing his fund-raising skills, another sign of UO’s understandable conclusion that in building the university it wants, or even clinging to its Association of American Universities membership, it’s on its own. At the Capitol, it was Oregon State Day, when students swarmed the halls to tell legislators what it’s like to try to pay for college in a post-floppy disk era.
“Hope springs eternal until the session is over,” suggested Oregon State president Ed Ray. “You meet some wonderful young students, maybe that makes you think a little more creatively.”

Maybe you can come up with the price of a chemistry textbook.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 4/19/15.