ASHLAND — Record enrollment at Southern Oregon University this term has boosted its financial reserves, but officials fear the money could be snatched up by the cash-strapped state and used elsewhere, forcing SOU to once again make budget cuts.

ASHLAND — Record enrollment at Southern Oregon University this term has boosted its financial reserves, but officials fear the money could be snatched up by the cash-strapped state and used elsewhere, forcing SOU to once again make budget cuts.

It's a scenario SOU officials are working to avoid this year by asking the Legislature to change the Oregon University System's status as a state agency to a special district, a more independent entity similar to a community college district. The change would enable OUS to have more control over tuition money and to sidestep state spending limitations.

"Right now we have 6,400 lines of budget," said SOU President Mary Cullinan. "It's absurd. Anybody who has a little piece of the pie adds a line."

The university system's current status, in place since 1929, is archaic and robs schools of financial stability, said Diane Saunders, OUS communications director.

Last year, OUS had to return $34 million to the state, and about $1.2 million of that was from SOU, officials said.

"In 2009, the state came in and swept our reserves," Saunders said. "Because we're a state agency, they can treat us like any state agency and take our reserves.

"When students and their parents write checks for tuition, they think it's going to go toward the university, but when the funds get swept, that money just goes away."

While several legislators have expressed support for the OUS proposal, others are concerned the change could result in tuition spikes, because the Legislature might no longer have firm control over tuition rates.

State Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, said he supports the university system's efforts to reform its status, but wants to ensure that tuition won't skyrocket.

"I think the universities have a great point in terms of wanting the ability to perform like community colleges do and be able to plan the use of their reserves on a more long-term basis than the Legislature allows them to currently," he said. "Any steps we take should depend on what the university system needs institutionally and also what students need in terms of affordability and access."

The Oregon Students Association is waiting to weigh in on the proposal, but is also concerned about potential tuition increases, said Curtis Bartlett, an OSA board member and vice president of the Associated Students of SOU.

"The proposal seems rather vague and we'd like to see more details before we're able to say exactly what their plan is for us," he said. "We're looking for more affordability of tuition and more aid availability."

The university system is working with legislators to create a condition in the proposal that would monitor tuition rates, Saunders said.

"We want to create a compact with the state, in exchange for the flexibility we're asking for," she said.

The proposal would give the university system more flexibility in spending its funding from the state, but would require the universities to meet certain enrollment, retention and graduation-rate benchmarks.

Currently, the university system gets about 17 percent of its funding from the state, a percentage that has dropped dramatically in the past few decades, as the state's financial situation has become more dire.

Because the proposal would allow the universities to keep their financial reserves, they would be able to plan further in advance, letting students know what tuition rates and programs will be offered as far as four years in the future, Cullinan said.

"If we have some stability in our system "… then we can make a plan," she said. "We can plan three or four years out."

The university system would like to see the Legislature approve the status change this year, so OUS could begin operating more independently as early as next fall.

Buckley anticipates the Legislature will approve some restructuring of the university system's legal status this year, but it's unclear exactly what that will look like, he said.

"We want to make sure it's an inclusive discussion that includes students and faculty, as well as administrators," he said.

Hannah Guzik is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach her at 541-482-3456, ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.