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State Ed board wants to restore $9 million to regional colleges

SALEM — The chancellor of the Oregon University System said Tuesday the State Board of Education is fully committed to restoring $9 million recommended by the governor for the state's four regional institutions.

George Pernsteiner said the dollars are necessary to ensure the financial sustainability of the campuses — including Southern Oregon University — "which I think is questionable. They are very fragile financially."

His remarks came following the release of a report by the Oregon Student Association criticizing the "continuing disinvestment" in public higher education, including community colleges.

The co-chairs of the Ways and Means Committee pared the $9 million recommendation to $2 million when they released their budget priorities last week.

Pernsteiner said the regional campuses, along with Oregon State University's Cascade campus in Bend, serve several functions that are different from some of the larger campuses.

"They provide more services and more access to students from families who never had anybody go to college before," he said. He said their main focus is student success and there are no economies of scale in achieving their mission.

"Because they serve a different mission it is important that they be funded to fulfill that mission," he said. "It takes counseling, it takes faculty to help students who don't have a lot of experience with college." He said they also are important economic, cultural and social contributors to their community.

Pernsteiner said the regionals have been the casualties over the past few years of cut after cut. Even one of the leaders of the fiscal panel, Sen. Kurt Schrader, D-Canby, acknowledged the financial plight of the campuses.

"Oregon should be very worried about the role of the regional colleges and the public should be worried," he said in announcing the cut to $2 million.

Enrollments have been declining, but Pernsteiner said it has stabilized at both Southern Oregon and Western Oregon in Monmouth.

"I'm sure there would have been a rebound if the governor's budget were funded because it would have sent a message of optimism," he said.

SOU has pared $4 million from its budget, while Rogue Community College is laying off more than 20 people.

Pernsteiner said if the Legislature doesn't come up with additional funds for the regionals along with downstate community colleges, the message that it sends to the rural parts of the state is not a good one.

"It's not a message of promise, it is not a message of abundance, it is not a message that says our future will be brighter and you as ... residents of nonmetropolitan Oregon are going to be fully successful," he said.

The OSA report contained the results of surveys and interviews with faculty, staff and students on funding problems for the four-year institutions and the community colleges.

Don Jepsen is a freelance writer living in Salem. Reach him at jepsen34@open.org.