22 May

Oregon higher education: Hoping to be Mississippi?

It’s not often that Oregon appears in the higher ranks of any list concerning higher education. We keep our universities on such starvation rations that the University of Oregon concluded, a few years ago, that its only chance was to get out of the state system. The UO was swiftly followed by the other six state universities, even by those with what one might call no visible means of support.

Restructuring Oregon higher education has been a breakthrough. Now, instead of Oregon underfunding its higher education system, we underfund our universities individually.

But last week, there was Oregon, ranking # 6 nationally in a chart produced by the Washington, D.C, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities – a chart chronicling higher education cuts during the Great Recession. From 2007 to 2015, the CPBB found, Oregon cut its inflation-adjusted per student spending by 33.5 percent, among the deepest cuts in the country.
And Oregon’s universities hadn’t been all that generously funded in 2007.
The chart was released at just about the same time as Oregon’s latest revenue forecast, showing state revenues up by several hundred million dollars. That was followed by a plaintive statement by the state’s seven university presidents noting, “While other sectors of the budget have had funding restored, higher education has not. The result has been higher tuition, reduced student services, and a more expensive and uncertain path to a post-secondary degree. This trend cannot continue.”

Actually, this being Oregon, the trend can continue, and generally has.

Of course, we now have an official state policy goal of 40-40-20, calling for 40 percent of Oregon’s adult population having at least a four-year degree. You can’t have sky-high aspirations while your funding bumps along the ground.

Actually, this being Oregon, you can, but it generally doesn’t work out too well.

In 2007, says Portland State President Wim Wiewel, the state’s two-year budget for its universities was $693 million. For the next two years, with the boost proposed earlier
by the Ways and Means co-chairs, the state appropriation would be $670 million – for a system with 20,000 more students, higher pay for faculty and staff and a rising PERS bill. Just to get to the same nominal support for students, the presidents figure, would mean state spending of $755 million.

No other part of the state budget gazes back at 2007 across such a gap.

At Oregon Institute of Technology – which recently made a national list of nine “non-Ivy bargains,” along with places like Rice and UC Berkeley – the proposed budget leaves the university with a hiring freeze and a $2.5 million deficit.

“We have a very short time period,” says President Chris Maples, “to get the ship righted.”
There is a sharp contradiction in bewailing the economic depths of rural Oregon at the same time we’re starving universities in Klamath Falls, Ashland, Monmouth and La Grande – something that representatives of those universities tried to explain to the legislators Tuesday.

At Portland State, the state’s largest university, with its largest number of low-income students eligible for federal Pell grants and largest minority enrollment, Wiewel notes that the proposed budget allows little scope for any new effort. “If we get more than the co-chairs recommend,” says the PSU president, “some of it will be used to lessen the burden on students,” including another look at next year’s 4.2 percent tuition increase.

For most places, this is not unimaginable thinking. Last week in California – which cut its higher ed spending by only 11.1 percent over the recession – an increase in state revenue led its Gov. Brown to give the University of California 4 percent increases in each of the next four years (plus some help paying down pension liabilities) in exchange for a two-year tuition freeze and other efficiencies.

State Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, praised Brown’s investment in the university system.

In the Oregon legislature, praise for higher ed is abundant. Notes Wiewel, “The rhetorical level of support is superb.” To Maples, “We’ve gotten great philosophical support. Getting philosophical support has gotten us to the bottom of the country.”

The CBPP chart reminds us that Oregon’s higher ed funding continues to be among the national bottom feeders, and that we’ve been heading in the wrong direction. Right now, Maples calculates, Oregon is $20 million short of providing as much per-student support as Mississippi.

“Oregon worries about becoming the Mississippi of the West Coast,” he notes.

“I will tell you, in higher education Oregon is aspiring to be the Mississippi of the West Coast.”

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 5/20/15.