Read the original story in The Oregonian here.
Oregon students face a softer bump than usual in the cost of attending the state's seven public universities next year.
The universities are proposing to raise tuition an average 6 percent, bringing annual tuition and fees for a full-time undergraduate to $7,841. But they would offset that increase with cuts in fees so that total tuition and fees for 2012-13 will climb 3.4 percent.
The State Board of Higher Education will vote on the proposed increases at its meeting Friday in Portland. It usually approves the annual tuition proposals. Tuition has climbed by some measure every year at least since 1990.
Students were involved at every campus in setting tuition increases. Even so, student leaders caution any increase puts a heavier burden on young people who already are struggling.
"We continue to see students paying more and getting less," said Emily McLain, executive director of the Oregon Student Association, which represents students from all the universities. "Students are graduating with more and more debt. Student loans now outpace credit card debt."
The proposed tuition hikes for next school year range from 1.5 percent at Western Oregon University to 9.9 percent at Southern Oregon University. But all universities are off-setting their tuition increases by reducing health insurance and other fees.
Because of fee cuts, total tuition and fees would actually drop 1.4 percent at Portland State University and 1.1 percent for some students at Western Oregon University. Western students will pay more, however, if they want to take advantage of the Western Promise – a guarantee of no tuition increases for four years. Eastern Oregon University for the first time would charge more in tuition, about double, for students outside of Oregon, Washington and Idaho.
Most of the fee reductions result from drops at some universities in mandatory health fees, a change that will drive up costs for some students.
Portland State University, for example, will shift from a mandatory minimum insurance plan to a comprehensive one in response to new rules from the U.S. health department. Students with insurance from a parent, spouse or work – about 60 percent of them – can opt out and save the $333 a year they pay now. Students without such options must buy PSU insurance, a 404 percent jump to $1,680 a year.
The Oregon Institute of Technology and Western Oregon, Southern Oregon and Eastern Oregon universities will shift to more expensive, comprehensive insurance and make it voluntary, as the University of Oregon and Oregon State University have long done.
That means some students will have lower fees, but no health insurance.
University officials said tuition increases are necessary to offset cuts in state funding and for rising costs of faculty and staff salaries and benefits. State funding for its universities dropped from $824 million in 2009-11 to $691 million this biennium, a 16 percent cut.
"When we look at tuition and fees, what we want to maintain is a balance of access and affordability and to maintain quality," said Bob Davies, president of Eastern Oregon in La Grande. "That is the balancing act we have."
The student association is most alarmed by Southern Oregon's proposed 9.9 tuition increase, which surpasses the limit set by the Legislature for 2011-13. That limit is an average of no more than 6.5 percent a year and no more than 7.5 percent in any single year.
The limit applies to the average collective increase for all four universities, meaning any single university can exceed the limit as long as others fall below it to compensate, said Jonathan Eldridge, SOU's vice president for student affairs.
With health insurance reductions and a cut in incidental student fees of $44 a term, the total increase in tuition and fees for a full-time Southern undergraduate would be 4.2 percent.
The university needs a sizeable tuition increase because it has asked for more modest gains in recent years – 6.8 percent last year – and has seen its state support drop from more than $18 million in 2007-09 to $13 million for this biennium, Eldridge said.
"If the student association focuses more on the disinvestments in education and less on tuition, we would be on the same page," he said. "Raising tuition is a reaction to reductions in state funding."
Jay Kenton, the Oregon University System's vice chancellor for finance and administration, agreed with McLain that Southern exceeded the Legislature's tuition ceiling. But state officials said that offsetting the increase with lower fees complied with the spirit of the rule, he said.
Students worry, McLain said, the state's reaching "a tipping point where Oregonians can't afford to go to college at the same time we're trying to increase graduation from high school and going to college rates."
Portland State University may have reached that tipping point this year when it raised its tuition 9 percent and enrollment went flat, said President Wim Wiewel.
The university saw close to a $12 million drop in state support and similar increase in public employee retirement costs, creating a $25 million deficit in its $270 million education budget. The tuition increase filled only about $10 million of that hole, Wiewel said.
So for next year, the university has cut about 25 administrators, reduced its extended studies program, which offers professional development, and reduced other academic programs by about 1 percent. That will allow it to keep its tuition increase at 3.8 percent, which should enable it to attract more students and, thereby, more revenue, Wiewel said. The university also is tapping its reserves to pay its bills.
By following a similar strategy over the subsequent two years, the university hopes to reach a point where revenue and expenses balance, Wiewel said. The university is responding to a clear message from the world, he said:
"Keep down costs so we can keep tuition increases very modest."