The Oregonian: Universities get new focus, but still need new cash
Author: David Sarasohn
Posted: December 3, 2012

Read the original article in The Oregonian here.

Every so often, the state of Oregon remembers that it has a higher education system. Typically, this happens late in a legislative session, about the time of year when unsuccessful applicants to selective colleges get the word. In both cases, the message tends to be brief and discouraging. 

But as next year's session of the Legislature approaches, interest in Oregon universities is at a level typically seen only at the Civil War game. 

A special committee on university governance has sent legislators Legislative Concept 759, a plan for setting up the separate institutional boards eagerly sought by the University of Oregon and Portland State, not to mention Phil Knight. Gov. John Kitzhaber, whose interest in higher ed during his first terms was fairly tepid, is now an enthusiastic backer of the separate boards. The budget he released last week creates a new Department of Post-Secondary Education, as well as the new Higher Education Coordinating Commission. The new Oregon Education Investment Board will take its look at higher ed restructuring on Dec. 11. The leadership of the incoming House of Representatives may give higher ed its own standing committee. 

Even state Treasurer Ted Wheeler is involved, talking about using some newly available state bonding capacity to help set up new scholarship funding for Oregon college students. 

Suddenly, it seems all of state government is wearing a university sweatshirt. 

As is often the case, people wonder what's underneath. 

"What I want out of the session," says Oregon State President Ed Ray, a skeptic about creating new institutional boards, "is operating flexibility and resources." 

Traditionally, higher ed has come up short in the Legislature in both of those areas. Kitzhaber's budget proposes a 7.2 percent increase for Oregon's universities, and he insists the fundraising power of separate university boards will provide a way to close some more of the fiscal gap. 

"There isn't a well-regarded public university anywhere that doesn't have a lot of private funding," the governor told The Oregonian editorial board last week. "It's very important to have a model that can attract private money." 

It's especially important in Oregon, where a university has to raise at least half the money for a new building or capital project itself. 

In Ray's 10 years at Oregon State, the university has done well raising private money, notably in a recent capital drive, and he's not certain the new boards would change the odds. But if, as Oregon and Portland State backers expect, the restructuring changes the dynamic for attracting both private and matching state aid, the issue could reopen. 

"If we're at a disadvantage because others have an institutional board, that's a new fact," Ray says. "My instinct would be to go to the university community and say, 'Talk to me.'" 

The new structural focus on the state's universities at multiple levels -- an executive department, a legislative committee, institutional boards -- has to be useful for the system, typically a focus of Salem attention only for budget cuts. With an official state goal of 40 percent of Oregonians having bachelor's degrees by 2025, the new attention is vital; as the governor noted, this year the class of 2025 enters kindergarten. 

But as Ray notes, Oregon's also not going to get there without some more resources going into the system, opening up some more capacity to produce all those additional degrees. Enrollment has been rising throughout the system, but the state's vaulting dependence on tuition to pay for it all carries its own costs. 

Students who are not scared off by sticker shock can graduate with intimidating debt burdens. Out-of-state students paying out-of-state tuition, while financially alluring and a mounting part of the universities' strategies, may not do that much to raise the educational levels of Oregonians. 

Still, all the new structural attention to higher education has to be useful. 

The first step in strengthening your universities is to notice that you have them.