The way that Oregon divvies up state funding between its seven public universities is out of whack. The Higher Education Coordinating Commission should heed the University of Oregon’s call for a more-balanced approach.
The Register-Guard’s dug into the nitty gritty of the higher education funding formula called the Student Success and Completion Model. We won’t repeat the detailed explanation here.
What we want to highlight is that the formula that HECC uses favors some schools more than others. Specifically, it awards more money to schools that have a lot of students who study science, technology, engineering and math subjects. Schools that lean more toward the humanities and arts lose out.
That’s the roundabout way of saying that Oregon State University gets a much bigger slice of the pie than the University of Oregon despite enrollment counts that don’t differ tremendously. The school in Corvallis gets 32% of overall state spending on higher education compared with only 18.4% for the one here in Eugene.
With $864 million on the line, that works out to a significant funding disparity. During the state’s 2019 fiscal year, OSU received $122 million, and UO only $69 million.
Again, that difference is only because OSU happens to have a larger proportion of students with the right majors.
Performance-based funding for higher education is not unique to Oregon. More than two-thirds of states allocate higher education dollars based on outcomes with the hope of incentivizing some policy goal or other. Some states have it across the board, others just with community colleges or some other segment of higher education.
At least Oregon doesn’t use the Washington model. There, universities make their budget requests directly to the governor and lawmakers. Each university receives its allocation in the state budget. That creates an environment in which lawmakers can play favorites with the schools they like or is in their community. So, for example, Seattle is much more populous than Pullman and therefore has far more lawmakers in the Legislature. The University of Washington, which is in Seattle, therefore potentially has more baseline support in the statehouse than Washington State University.
At least there’s more money to go around these days in Oregon. During the Great Recession, the state struggled to support colleges and universities. It took years just to get back to baseline. Oregon’s public schools still rely heavily on tuition and fees.
HECC and other higher education leaders are conducting a planned review of the funding formula. Over the next few months, the state will decide whether to adjust the weighting, and officials from UO are urging some reasonable changes to create greater equity.
It’s one thing for the state to prioritize its spending in a way that supports policy goals, but the current discrepancy is shocking. Are Oregon students in the humanities really worth little more than half of students in STEM subjects in the eyes of HECC? We hope not.
While the private sector does chronically complain about the need for more workers trained in technical and scientific fields, it’s not at all self-evident that it’s the state’s obligation to spend so disproportionately to generate them. Some prioritization, sure, but Oregon has skewed things too far.
The private sector pays STEM graduates well. An engineer, mathematician or computer scientist will, on average, earn quite a bit more than someone with a degree in sociology or English literature. OSU, because it is better supported under the formula, can rely on tuition increases that much less than UO. Those humanities students, then, get hit with the double whammy of more student loan debt and lower salaries.
Yet the workforce needs those liberal arts and humanities students. They are visionaries, problem solvers and leaders. Executives, human resources officers and marketing department staff don’t come from nowhere.
That’s not to mention the general good that accrues from having a well-rounded intellectual landscape at universities and in society at-large. Even an engineer benefits from being able to talk smartly about literature or art.
Weighting the funding formula is fine. The state has goals, and it should use the power the purse to support them. But those weights need to be recalibrated periodically when they get too far out of balance, as they have now.