The Oregonian: Measuring the return on investing in a college degree
Author: Scott Dawson, dean of the PSU School of Business Administration
Posted: January 2, 2013

Read the original column in The Oregonian here. 

Public higher education is under more pressure than ever to perform. State funding has declined sharply in recent years, triggering tuition increases and increasing demands from students and families for a quantifiable return on their investment.

As dean of the School of Business Administration at Portland State University, I understand the ROI perspective. I also see an increasing number of international students from Asia, the Middle East and other places flocking to U.S. universities at greater expense and seeking the same return on investment.

At PSU, for instance, we educate more than 470 Saudi Arabian students, who pay about three times more tuition than Oregon students. The Saudi government is paying for 40,000 students to attend U.S. universities with the goal that they will return with skills to help diversify their economy, which is now roughly 80 percent dependent on oil. China, Korea, Japan, India and other nations also know that the best investment in economic development is a college education for their young people.

That's true here as well. Research shows that lifetime earnings for a U.S. college graduate are 2.3 times higher on average than for those without a degree. Yet in Oregon, we have been steadily disinvesting in higher education. Five years ago, the state allocated $847 million to the Oregon University System, or 7.7 percent of the 2007-09 general fund. That amount has been cut to $669 million during the current biennium, only 4.9 percent of the general fund.

While state support has dwindled, the costs to educate students have remained about the same when adjusted for inflation, but those costs have shifted dramatically from the state to the student. As The Oregonian pointed out in a recent series, many students graduate with debt at a time when the economy is not creating enough well-paying jobs. In the long run, those graduates will get jobs, repay their debt and move up the economic ladder. But the state shoulders some of the responsibility for their debt burden. We do too. At PSU, access to higher education is crucial to our urban mission, and making college affordable means making our best effort to hold down tuition increases. So we and other universities are looking at other funding sources to make up the difference in lost state funding, such as private philanthropy and aggressively recruiting out-of-state and international students, who pay higher tuition.

The benefits include a more diverse campus that helps make the world smaller for the next generation of leaders. But there is also some perverse logic at work here -- we pursue our urban mission of providing access to Oregonians in part by attracting more international students who are not likely to stay and contribute to the Oregon economy.

We and other universities are developing efficiencies and cost-cutting measures, but the state cuts have been too deep, and our growth demands have increased each year. Enrollment at Oregon's seven public universities, for instance, has soared by nearly 20,000 students in the past five years, surpassing 100,000 students.

Other strategies being developed by PSU and other universities include designing high-quality interactive courses and programs for online delivery, program design maps, extensive advising and creating guarantees to students to ensure they can graduate in four years, which saves them significant money and time.

The Legislature convenes next month and will take up K-12 and higher education funding during a period when Oregon's economy is slowly recovering. The governor has recommended moderate budget increases in education, including boosting the Oregon Opportunity Grants that help low-income Oregonians pay for college. Restoring some of the cuts to universities is a critical step toward ensuring a better return on investment for Oregon's economic future.

Scott Dawson is dean of the School of Business Administration at Portland State University.