As state support has waned over the years for Oregon’s public universities, students have filled the gap by paying more and more and more in tuition.
And it looks as if that’s going to happen yet again, as lawmakers grapple with a $1.6 billion shortfall that could leave the state’s public universities and colleges millions short of what education officials believe those institutions will need.
Just last week, the University of Oregon’s board of trustees authorized a plan to increase in-state undergraduate tuition by 10.6 percent. It’s the largest tuition increase at that university since 2010. Portland State University officials are considering a similar increase.
Oregon State University officials are mulling a 4 to 8 percent tuition increase, in addition to possible cutbacks in programs: President Ed Ray has said the university could be looking at a $20 million annual shortfall. OSU officials are mulling curtailing salary increases, going slow on new hires and leaving some open positions vacant. The University of Oregon is considering program cutbacks, with reports surfacing that it will cut $9 million from its budget.
It was just two years ago that sunnier budget times allowed Oregon lawmakers to approve a budget that included a 22 percent increase in spending on the state’s public universities.
That was enough of a boost to pull Oregon out of the cellar in terms of the amount of support it provides to higher education: The Oregonian newspaper reported last week that Oregon now ranks 37th in the nation in that category, which isn’t great, but is better than the bottom-five ranking the state usually earns.
However, It might be that we’re getting ready to resume that familiar slide to the bottom: The first-draft budget from Gov. Kate Brown called for flat-lining spending for the state’s seven universities at $667 million. University officials were hoping for an additional $100 million in funding. A later draft budget from legislative budget leaders added a bit to that number, but didn’t come close to filling the hole. The legislative budget also assumed that lawmakers would not be able to identify additional sources of revenue.
The problem with a flat budget is that it doesn’t take into account some of the very factors that are driving the state’s $1.6 billion shortfall: Increased obligations for public pensions and rising costs for medical insurance, not to mention inflation and salary increases.
Ray has said that 70 percent of OSU’s budget goes to personnel, so that limits the university’s options in trimming costs.
One budgetary option that universities do have, however, is raising tuition. The problem there, of course, is that if you raise tuition too much, the costs eventually drive students away (something like that might be happening at the University of Oregon). And as the economy continues to improve, potential students might well elect against assuming mountains of debt in order to earn a degree.
There are some ways to manage that, though: OSU, for example, is working on ways to keep students on track in school so that they can graduate in four or five years instead of six or seven, with obvious savings.
But those sorts of strategies, while useful, can only go so far.
It’s still early in the legislative session, so there’s plenty of time for changes to the state budget. Nevertheless, you would think that everyone understands the long-term risks of asking students, again and again and again, to cover the funding gaps in our state universities. Will it require a full-fledged meltdown at one or more of our schools to hammer the point home? Let’s hope not.