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The Oregonian: Oregon public colleges face some of the nation's most staggering financial straits
Author: Betsy Hammond, The Oregonian
Posted: March 8, 2013

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psu.tuition.march5.2013.JPGView full sizePortland State University President Wim Wiewel explains to skeptical students why tuition at Oregon community colleges and universities doubled over the past ten years. He spoke at a February 2012 education forum on his campus. 

Against a national landscape of battered state budgets and declining taxpayer support for colleges and universities, Oregon stands out as a place where public colleges are enduring some of the most dire straits in the nation, a new report says.

Since 2007, Oregon's universities and community colleges were flooded with the most staggering enrollment gains of any state: the equivalent of 36 percent more full-time students, according tothe report by the Association of State Higher Education Executive Officers.

But higher education in Oregon didn't get an infusion of money, so colleges had to raise tuition, limit financial aid and spend a lot less per student, the report says.

Nearly all states contributed less per-student to higher education in 2012 than in 2007, it noted. But Oregon saw the 10th largest plunge in per-student public support when inflation is taken into account: a 32 percent decrease to about $3,650 per student, the report says.

Only four states -- Colorado, New Hampshire, Vermont and Ohio -- provided less taxpayer support per student, according to the report. Neighboring Washington, by contrast, chipped in $1,000 more for every student, and the national average was $6,500 per student.

One upshot is that Oregon universities and community colleges pack more students into classes and pay below-market salaries to professors and instructors because they have so little money, said Bob Kieran, assistant vice chancellor for institutional research and planning. Per-student, they spend 10 percent less than the national average, the report says.

Another is that students and families are increasingly asked to pay the tab, throughrising tuition and fees. 

With a 6 percent tuition hike forecast for next fall, students from working-class families are finding themselves shut out of higher education -- something that will hurt not just them but the Oregon economy, said Jim Francesconi, a member of the State Board of Higher Education and chairman of a new higher education advocacy group, The Oregon Idea.

"We are dooming future Oregonians to a high school education because they can't afford college," he said. Referring to Oregon's 40-40-20 plan, he said, "We want 40 percent of our students to graduate from college, and we want another 40 percent to get a degree or certificate from the community colleges. But our policy has been, yeah, let's meet state goals but let's have the students pay for it."

Oregon used to be considered a low-tuition state. But payments from students and their families now average $6,100 a year across public universities and community colleges, about 20 percent above the national average, the report found. Only 17 states ask students to pay more. Washington students, on average, pay 55 percent as much as students in Oregon.

Part of that is due to Oregon's low rate of state financial aid. At about $200 per student, on average, it is less than half the national average and one-quarter of what Washington awards.

Paul Zito, a Springfield resident in his third year at Lane Community College, feels that pain. He studies hard and gets good grades. But he has to work 15 to 25 hours a week -- and still ends up unable to afford three meals a day or the textbooks for many of his classes.

Meanwhile, he says, the student resource center has cut back on tutors and the number of books it can lend. "They are becoming less and less available as more students need them," he said.

Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler has proposed that the state borrow $500 million to create a permanent endowment for financial aid that would eventually triple how much money Oregon awards to low- and moderate-income students.

Normally, the state issues such debt only for capital projects.

Wheeler's plan, which has yet to be voted on by any lawmakers, would have to be approved by Oregon voters, perhaps in fall 2014. If approved, it would increase yearly spending on college aid from $50 million to $75 million within two years.

Lamar Wise, a University of Oregon junior who graduated from Century High in Hillsboro, said he comes from a middle-class family but struggles to afford rising tuition, housing costs and books. Last year, after covering tuition, fees and books, he ended up having to couch-surf because he couldn't afford rent.

"I had to make decisions between buying my next book or buying food for the week," he said. "I think it's time for a change in the state Legislature."

Oregon State University President Ed Ray has led his university through years with layoffs, furloughspay freezes and painful tuition hikes. He's not interested in being pitied and said OSU and other Oregon colleges were able to do smart belt-tightening to insulate students from what could have been worse effects.

But, he said, the pattern of raising tuition and cutting spending must be reversed.

"The reality is, we're running out of steam. These trends cannot persist for the next two to four years without doing substantial damage to the universities' ability to meet the educational needs of Oregonians.

"I am hopeful we can figure out a better way forward. ... You look at the numbers, and it's incontrovertible that this is not sustainable. I see a sense of determination in the governor's office and the business sector and elsewhere to turn things in a more positive direction."