The Oregonian: Let's collaborate to promote college affordability: Guest opinion
Author: Melody Rose
Posted: May 20, 2013

Read the original article in The Oregonian here.

College students recently testified before the Oregon Legislature, and the pain of increasing tuition was clear on their faces, stressed from overworking, overborrowing and the constant worry that the next bill may be the tipping point.

Many economic strains have led to today's college costs, including students now covering over 70 percent of the cost of their education at Oregon's public universities, a complete flip from 20 years ago when the state covered that much. While not alone, Oregon remains in the bottom 10 nationally for student funding, a T-shirt slogan that we're not proud of: We're 44th.

The context is complex, but a few facts help: The $668 million in state funding the Oregon University System received for 2011-13 is less than the $755 million (unadjusted) that it received in 1999-2001, and our campuses are educating 34,000 more students now than they did then. That's the equivalent of adding two more universities the size of Portland State and Oregon Tech to the system.

Yes, students are feeling the most pain, but despite the annual and now routine budget cuts, universities can't rope in the cost dragon alone. Without more faculty to cover student growth, overcrowded classrooms lead to a longer time to degree, lower quality, and yet more tuition and borrowing for students. Last year Oregon was cited as having the highest percentage five-year enrollment increase nationally, and OUS is recognized as producing almost the lowest-cost degrees in the country. Despite these high marks for efficiency amid growing enrollment, students are struggling with college costs.

We need help, Oregon.

Alone, universities cannot guarantee affordability for all students, and the "new normal" ensures no return to the golden age of higher education funding. With state financial aid not covering all needy students, campuses have stepped up with historic amounts of aid. But that is still not enough.

So what is the solution?

Collaboration among the many partners -- aligned with education reform efforts underway -- must accelerate, otherwise we'll lose current students and those with college dreams who can't see past the sticker price.

There is a great word in Swahili, "harambee," which means: Let's pool resources, muscle and creativity to get the job done united and faster. From the state, we need more funding for campus instruction, facilities and financial aid. We know there isn't a secret money cache out there, but let's recognize the sinkhole created by thousands of new students who need tuition relief to get a degree. The governor's balanced budget steers us in the right direction.

While campuses have cut costs as enrollment has risen, we need to find more incremental savings without harming student learning. Consideration by the state to expand shared services is one way to gain efficiencies, and academic innovations like Credit for Prior Learning can also speed time to degree and decrease student costs.

Business and private donors already provide significant help to students in Oregon, and we encourage even more support of our future workforce with scholarships and aid that ensure a deep pool of highly skilled Oregonians.

Students can help, too, by taking dual-credit college courses in high school, which will save about $2,600 for every term they can skip in college. Mapping out degree courses early helps students finish in four years, and keeping borrowing below one's estimated starting salary helps ensure manageable post-graduation debt.

There is no simple solution to college affordability in this age of declining and stretched state budgets set against the growing demand for a degree. But one thing is certain: Universities can't do it alone. We need to harambee, Oregon.

Melody Rose is the interim chancellor of the Oregon University System.