19 Jul

One good legislative session for higher ed; many more needed

Even for a year that started with the Ducks getting drilled in the national championship game, 2015 has signs of a good year for Oregon higher education.

With the overall 2015-17 state budget up by 11 percent, state support for its universities went up by more than 27 percent, and for community colleges by 18 percent, both numbers unseen for at least two decades. The legislature also considerably increased funding for the state Opportunity Grants scholarship program, and sizably funded higher ed construction. It’s a major investment in Oregon’s colleges and universities, the first actual cash-based support for the state’s proclaimed 40-40-20 goal, a significant effort to slow our tuition levels from shooting upward like illegal fireworks.

It’s enough to haul out the pompoms left from the championship game, and give three cheers for the legislature.

Well, maybe two cheers.

The increase is impressive and welcome, but we need to remember where our higher ed budgets started. It was “a very good session,” agrees Ben Cannon, executive director of the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, but “the context includes cuts of equal magnitude, and a long trend of disinvestment.”

The budget is a major step forward, but it gets Oregon from being one of the bottom five states in higher ed support to somewhere in the bottom 10.

Still, we have changed direction.

“I’m very pleased,” said Portland State University president Wim Wievel, who called the funding increase “huge.”

Wiewel also credited a change of direction that wasn’t entirely financial.

“There was no way in hell we would have gotten the money if we were still under the state board of higher education,” he explained. “When we were a state agency, there was no lobbying after the governor’s budget came out.”

Since the last budget session, the state board has been dissolved, the seven state universities have gotten their own governor-appointed boards, and the universities and community colleges have been put under the new HECC.

In lobbying the legislature, said Cannon, “We saw a high degree of coordination between the universities and the community colleges,” and the members of HECC and the boards of the three major universities – the first to be appointed – produced “40 or 50 private citizens deeply interested in the future of Oregon higher education.”

Plus, Wiewel noted, higher ed worked with the Oregon Student Association and business and labor groups. With a different arrangement, higher ed advanced in both the Ways and Means co-chairs’ budget and the final numbers.

Once a decade, a legislative session remembers that Oregon has a higher education system. But after the previous such sessions – 1999 and 2007 – the economy shifted and Oregon’s higher ed funding went backward further than it had advanced.

And over the last five years, 2009-14, Oregon cut its support for its university students by one of the sharpest rates in the country, by 24.6 percent compared with a national average of 13.3 percent.

So although the new budget dramatically increases state support per university full-time-equivalent student from $5,194 to $6,455, that’s still less, adjusted for inflation, than the state’s was providing in 1999-2001. The state’s support for its universities rose to $700 million, but the university presidents calculated that just getting back to pre-recession level would take $755 million.

Hoping to get closer, says Wiewel, “We’re going to be coming back to the legislature in February, guns blazing.”

Still, Oregon’s college students clearly had their best legislative session in memory – part of a national trend of legislatures seeking to reinvest in higher education.

In Washington state, the legislative session that ended this month produced “a better year for higher education than we’ve seen in some time,” explained Chris Thompson, a senior legislative analyst for the House Democratic majority, last week.

Improvements included $106 million for pay increases in the system and – to counteract recession-driven tuition increases –$158 million to cut tuition by 5 percent next year, with an eventual tuition reduction of 15 percent at the University of Washington and Washington State, and 20 percent at the state’s regional universities.

“A lot of my members,” said Thompson, “were disappointed we couldn’t do more.”

Nobody thinks Oregon could do anything like that, or soon approach the internationally ranked University of Washington. But Washington’s moves should remind us that we’re competing not only with our bleak past on higher ed, but with lots of other states making their own investments.

And as the Oregon football team showed us, it takes lots of good years to get back in the game.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian. 7/19/15.

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