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Higher education funding has plunged; Legislature should increase support

Oregon's university system has been caught in a fiscal squeeze for more than a decade as the state cycles through a series of recessions and not-quite-full recoveries that sapped Oregon's ability to produce jobs along with revenue for public services.

The state's reliance on an income tax makes it highly susceptible to radical shifts in tax revenue to pay for the state' s seven universities, including Oregon Institute of Technology. It meant turning to tuition increases to pay for higher education at a time when Oregon families were less able to afford it.

The state used to pay for 70 percent of the costs to educate university students, and now it pays 30 percent.

In a visit with the Herald and News editorial board last week, Oregon University System Interim Chancellor Melody Rose made the case for more money for the university system. It's in the proposed budget from Gov. John Kitzhaber and legislative leaders for a 7 percent increase, but it would take another $50 million to avoid a tuition hike, she said. The proposed average increase in tuition is 4.8 percent for the system and 6 percent for OIT.

Rose also pointed out the proposed budget leaves out what's known as the "sports lottery" funds, which were approved in 1989 to generate money that would mostly go to scholarships for student athletes. Originally, it came from a specific lottery game, but in 2006 was changed to 1 percent of the lottery fund that went to economic development. It has been lowered in recent years and stands at zero for the next biennium. In the 2011-2013 biennium, it generated $8.6 million that benefited 2,547 student athletes in the system.

About 300 OIT student athletes benefited from the scholarships in the 2011-12 academic year and were among the 2,547 throughout the system who got the scholarships. A 2012 study conducted at OIT showed each student athlete was responsible for bringing in another 1.48 students to the school. That has a significant economic impact on the local area, but it also represents a loss when it's no longer there.

Of course, the main goal of higher education is to produce well-educated Oregonians capable of adding something to the Oregon economy and culture. It doesn't come easy or cheap.

To meet the goal, Oregon is on a campaign to produce a "40-40-20" population by 2025. That means by then, 40 percent of the population should have a bachelor's degree or better, 40 percent should have an associate's degree or its equivalent and 20 percent should have at least a high school degree.

It's not very close, and it looks like the gap is widening.

A report to the Legislature from the Oregon Education Investment Board using 2011 figures said 30 percent of Oregon's working-age adults had at least a bachelor's degree, 18 percent had an associate's degree or equivalent, 42 percent had a high school diploma and 10 percent lacked a high school diploma.

The really bad news is things are actually looking worse for the future. Statistics for young adults (25-34) were worse in every category — fewer college graduates, fewer with associate and equivalent degrees, fewer high school graduates and more who didn't finish their high school education.

In Oregon, today's young people are less educated than their parents, but will be contending with a future that revolves more than ever around the need for higher education.

The state's university system needs help. It's also an economic engine in its own right. We hope legislators recognize that and find a way to put more money into it.


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