The Oregon Legislature is deep into the project of shuffling the organizational flow chart for higher education administration, but this is the wrong priority. The current governance structure is not perfect, but what is in absolute disarray is the funding model for our public universities. In-state tuition and fees at the University of Oregon were more than six times as much in 2011-12 than in 1982-83, with the result that student debt has skyrocketed.
At $1.1 trillion, student debt is now the second-largest form of consumer debt in the country, surpassing credit card debt and second only to mortgage debt. The New York branch of the Federal Reserve reports that student debt has tripled over the past eight years.
In March, the Federal Reserve Board called the student debt burden a risk to national economic growth. The Wall Street Journal reports that student debt is impeding the housing recovery, as many young people are incapable of purchasing a home. The American Medical Association has written to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau about its concerns that undergraduate debt is preventing people from pursuing graduate education.
Our national leaders have not provided a solution. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office says that the federal government is earning 36 cents on the dollar for student loans and will bring in $34 billion next year. It is both immoral and foolish to tax the educational investments of young people to fund the federal government.
Locally, the state of Oregon has abdicated its responsibility to provide affordable, high quality, public higher education, by failing to maintain even a minimally adequate level of support for our universities. Oregon stands at 45th of 50 states in per-student state support, providing only 56 percent of the national average, as The Oregonian's Betsy Hammond has reported ("State lags nation in higher ed spending," March 6).
In the vacuum left by the state, Oregon universities have been forced to raise tuition and fees, with the result that students graduate from Oregon universities with an average of $25,000 in student debt.
Cuts in legislative support have also eroded the quality of higher education in Oregon. The student/faculty ratio is high; faculty salaries are low; full-time, tenure-track faculty teach fewer than half of the "student credit hours" at PSU, replaced by less-expensive, less-stable and less-qualified part-time instructors; and we have too few advisers and support personnel. Online education is no solution; done right, it is at least as expensive as classroom teaching.
We are failing our young people, and we are failing our future. The entire society benefits from a more educated citizenry. We need new ideas for funding higher education in Oregon right now. One bold proposal before the Legislature, House Bill 3472 (Pay Forward, Pay Back), would replace tuition and fees with a binding contract to pay 3 percent of income for 20 years into a higher education fund, after graduation with a four-year degree, to build an expanding fund for students in the future.
It's time to get serious about proposals with the potential to make a real difference.
Mary C. King is a professor of economics at Portland State University.