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Oregonian: Portland State to reconsider tuition increase after amped-up higher ed budget clears legislative committee
Author: Chris Lehman
Posted: June 11, 2019

To read the original story, visit the Oregonian

Portland State University students may face a much lower tuition increase next year than the eye-catching 11% hike approved last month.

The Finance and Administration Committee of the Board of Trustees will meet Wednesday to consider lowering the rate of the increase dramatically, to as low as 5% or less, according to Portland State University lobbyist Kevin Neely.

The probable change comes in the wake of a key legislative subcommittee approving an amped-up higher education funding package Tuesday morning.

House Bill 5024 is the budget bill for the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, or HECC. That’s the state agency that dispenses tax dollars to Oregon’s universities and community colleges. The bill includes $837 million for the state’s seven public universities and $641 million for community colleges.

Those amounts are both about $100 million more than Democratic Gov. Kate Brown included in the budget proposal she rolled out last November. And they’re also well above the “current service level,” which is the rate that – in theory – would be enough to fund current operations.

“Obviously it’s a significant additional investment,” said Neely.

But with fluctuating enrollment numbers and rising costs, the increase in state funding won’t be enough to hold off tuition increases across the board, he and others said. Universities had been pushing lawmakers to allocate $857 million.

Any tuition increase above 5% triggers a review by the HECC, which is scheduled to meet Thursday in Salem. That makes Wednesday’s meeting at Portland State critical, because action at that meeting could forestall additional scrutiny by the commission.

Could the tuition increase at PSU drop from 11% all the way down to 5%? Possibly, said Neely. “That would require us to make up a significant amount of resources internally,” he said.

In other words, he projects cuts to university programs and staffing. In documents submitted to the higher ed commission, the school has proposed reducing administrative positions, tenure-track positions, student employment and graduate assistance support, as well as reduced spending on classroom maintenance.

Lawmakers want to see even more budget-cutting moves at the state’s universities. A budget note approved alongside the spending package would require the universities to “collectively report to the Joint Committee on Ways and Means in February 2020 on cost management measures implemented during the 2019-20 academic year.”

“The report should include administration and program reductions, use of fund reserve balances, positions eliminated or left vacant for more than six months, and any new positions established,” the note says.

As of Tuesday, three other state universities were also scheduled to make their case to the oversight commission for tuition increases greater than 5%: the University of Oregon, Southern Oregon University and the Oregon Institute of Technology.

Most of the lawmakers on the education funding subcommittee approved the higher education budget, but not without some reservations.

“I hope that there is another look, if funds become available, for the universities to get that last little push towards what they had requested and what they need for their budget,” said Rep. Christine Drazan, R-Oregon City.