Oregon's university presidents have been angling for more money out of the Legislature all session, and now that the May revenue forecast predicts more growth, they've started making promises. Lawmakers should see those pledges and raise them a notch.
Higher education has taken a back seat to K-12 schools for years in Oregon, steadily losing funding that never was replaced. Then, when the Great Recession hit in 2007, the university system took another hit, along with the rest of state government. Programs were cut and tuition increased, again and again.
This legislative session, as lawmakers work to craft a budget for the next two years, they had more money to work with as the state's economy has rebounded from the depths of the downturn. But again, higher education has lagged behind other budget categories.
This year the co-chairs of the Legislature's budget-writing Joint Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, and Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, proposed to fund the university system at $670 million. But that figure wouldn't even restore funding to the 2007 level, let alone make up for declining support in previous years.
The presidents of the state's seven universities want a funding level of $755 million, $85 million more than the co-chairs' first offer. That, they say, would restore the system to where it was in 2007, not accounting for inflation.
When the May revenue forecast predicted the state will collect $460 more than the total predicted the previous quarter, the presidents turned up the heat. Now they are saying, if they get the extra $85 million — $35 million this year and $50 million next year, assuming continued growth — they would limit tuition increases and spend more on advisers, scholarships and other measures to help students stay in school.
Five campuses would limit tuition hikes to 2 percent, but Southern Oregon and Eastern Oregon universities would have slightly higher increases because they are facing severe budget problems. SOU already increased tuition 5 percent for the next academic year.
Buckley and Devlin have agreed not to discuss publicly their deliberations during the budget process, but Buckley said the co-chairs have asked the university administrators to commit to specific achievements if they get more money.
Here's another suggestion: If the universities get the extra $85 million, all of it should go to keeping tuition down. Every penny. Give all students a break from the steady increases, and then look for other ways to help them succeed.