Oregon must reinvest in higher education

Fall quarter at Southern Oregon University has come to a close, finals are graded and outcomes delivered, so there is time to think about the future. Recently TIME magazine featured a cover article outlining the changing nature of higher education in the United States. As an alum of SOU, having earned a bachelor's degree, teaching certificate and master's degree as a "place-bound" student, and then serving more than 20 years as a faculty member, I want to comment on the future of our regional university.

The TIME article had two pages of statistical information displayed in colorful maps and graphs. A map of the U.S. showed that since 2006 many states have disinvested in higher education, with only a few bucking this trend.

Oregon is revealed as a state that reduced investment in higher education by 10 percent to 20 percent. Some states such as California, facing more than a 20 percent reduction since 2006, had more state support to begin with. The disinvestment in Oregon began much earlier and has been maintained through the Great Recession.

The disinvestment began following the 1990 passage of Ballot Measure 5, a property tax limitation measure amending the Oregon Constitution. That year SOU received slightly more than two-thirds of its operating budget from the state of Oregon.

Looking back a decade ago (2002) that figure declines to only 52 percent. Dial that forward to the state contribution in 2012 and we find support reduced to a mere 26 percent, covering only one-quarter of the operating budget. And this does not account for the declining value of the dollar because of inflation.

Meanwhile, since 2002, tuition has increased 125 percent to cover the shortfall in state support.

Tuition would be even higher without great effort to keep SOU the most affordable choice in the Oregon system.

Consider that in 2008 the average SOU student graduated owing $26,000 on student loans. In 2011, Oregon's average per student debt was $25,497 (Project on Student Debt). Nationally, the figure is $26,600 (TIME). There is a limit to how much students are able to pay, and eventually students will be priced out of the market to the great detriment of the region.

The stated objective of the Measure 5 sponsors was to shift services, in this case education, from broad-based tax support to user fees. This short-sighted view of the state's role in higher education will have a negative effect on economic development in our state and region.

Businesses not only need educated workers, but they especially need the motivation and fresh, innovative ideas provided by recent graduates. This naturally spills over into new business formation and creation of the jobs of the future.

TIME: By 2020, 65 percent of all jobs will require a postsecondary education. Those with a bachelor's degree can expect to earn 77 percent more over their lifetimes than those with only a high school diploma.

While it is exciting that many high-achieving, local young people obtain higher education at distant, well-known universities, all of our students do not enjoy this opportunity. Currently, many U.S. students are from low-income families — 8.9 million students, up from only 176,000 in 1973-'74 (TIME).

At SOU, more than a third of students are in the first generation to attend college and about a quarter of students are from families with low incomes. Southern Oregon needs a regional higher education opportunity for the place-bound and income-limited residents of our region.

Some may wonder about cost-cutting at SOU. It should be noted that in 2006-'07 the university went through a significant reorganization to bring our expenses in line with our revenues. Since that time there have been further reductions, furlough days and and other measures to control costs. If you are wondering about faculty salaries, these fall in the bottom 20 percent when compared with similar public universities across the nation, according to the website of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

I would argue that public education has never been sustainable without the support of public tax dollars. Past generations made a commitment to the future by supporting education through public investment. Many of us increased our level of education, and therefore our earning power and quality of life, through hig-quality public education services.

In the past our citizens agreed that an investment in public education that resulted in a public good was the best way to increase the progress of the region, the state and our civilization in general. It is high time the state of Oregon return to the more enlightened education funding policies that were the foundation of our system.

Pat Acklin is an associate professor of geography at Southern Oregon University, a former member of the Ashland City Council and former chairwoman of the Ashland Community Hospital board.

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