23 Sep

Oregon universities may have a lower price, but they cost students more

If you could all just put down your college football Top Ten for a minute, we’re in the season for some other national university rankings.

Of course, in those, Oregonians would have to look a bit further down.

In the new 2015 U.S. News rankings of national universities, the Oregon schools are about where they’ve been, with the University of Oregon tied for 106th and Oregon State tied for 138th. In the kind of calculation we make this season, this puts U of O 7th in the Pac-12 – behind the four California universities, Washington and Colorado – and OSU tied with Washington State for last.

Those faculty salary and money spent per student statistics will get you every time.

Still, we’ve seen those rankings before, and every college administrator insists he pays no attention to U.S. News – although somehow it does appear in press releases when the numbers are good.

But this month marked the second annual appearance of another set of intriguing college rankings, the Washington Monthly “Best Bang for the Buck” ratings. They don’t have any point spreads, but they do point out some other interesting gaps.

In its calculations, Washington Monthly considers statistics such as percentage of students on federal Pell grants for low-income students, four-year graduation rates and student loan defaults. As the magazine’s editor Paul Glastris said in an interview last week, “The worst possible thing is to pay for a college degree and not get one.”

But the crucial number is “net price,” how much a low- or middle-income student, with family income of $75,000 or less, would actually pay. That calculation ranks affordability considerably differently than a direct look at the sticker price.

According to the university web sites, the full cost of attending the University of Oregon – tuition, room and board and other expenses – would be $24,405, and Oregon State would cost $24,594.
University of Washington costs would be $27,112, UC Berkeley $32,400 and UCLA $33,193. Even after years of tuition hikes, the numbers seem to rate the Oregon universities pretty well in the West Coast affordability rankings.

But considering net price to low- and middle-income families after financial assistance, the order reverses. Washington Monthly pegs net price at Oregon State at $14,545; Oregon at $13,307; UCLA at $9,973; Berkeley at $9,943; and UW at $8,359.

“You can’t just look at the sticker price,” points out Glastris. “You’ve got to look at actual price.”
Actual price, the real measure of affordability, means including other states’ vastly greater availability of state and institutional financial aid.

“Most families pay less than the full price of attending UC,” burbles the University of California’s web site cheerfully. “In fact, more than half of our undergraduate students pay no tuition at all. Over two-thirds of UC undergraduates receive grants and scholarships, with an average award of around $16,300.”

By contrast, the University of Oregon web site can only bring itself to say, “If you are determined to have financial need, you may be eligible for some need-based scholarships.”

The ranking of national universities providing “Best Bang for the Buck” consists almost entirely of public universities; Stanford is a terrific place, but nobody’s ever called it a bargain. On the list, UW is #6 in the country, Berkeley #11 and UCLA # 12. Well below Arizona State, Arizona and Utah comes Oregon at #43 and Oregon State at #52, although OSU does help its ranking with a high percentage of its students on Pell grants.

What lets universities be accessible, of course, is no surprise. “It’s very difficult to do that without support from elsewhere,” notes Robert Kelchen, assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, who put together the numbers, “either the state or private contributors.”

Kelchen points out that the top finisher in the rankings, the University of Florida, benefits from considerable state financial aid funding, and right behind is the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which has a sizable endowment for the purpose.

For Oregon to substantially improve its position, to rise above its long history of bad rankings for higher education accessibility, requires a major game changer.

One beginning might be Measure 86, the Oregon Opportunity Initiative, which would sell state bonds to create a financial aid endowment over time.

Only something that dramatic could bring Oregon within sight of universities it likes to compare itself with, to have UO and OSU – and the state’s other universities – figure in high school seniors’ calculations of bang for their buck.

Or we could just go back to the football rankings.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 9/21/14.

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