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Board OKs 9.9 percent SOU student tuition boost

Students at Southern Oregon University will pay more for an education next year, as will students at five of the state's seven public universities, the Oregon University System's State Board of Higher Education decided Friday.

Southern Oregon University, whose request for a 9.9 percent increase was beyond the Oregon Legislature's recommended 7.5 percent cap, became a focal point of the meeting.

Board members considered tapping into OUS reserve funds to offset the increase at SOU, but backed away from the option, fearing what could happen if positive enrollment forecasts don't hold true at the school in coming years.

Record enrollment during the past few years has kept SOU from having to consider higher tuition increases, said Jim Beaver, SOU director of interactive marketing and media relations.

"It's a question of risk, and how much risk we can bear," said OUS Chancellor George Pernsteiner. "Southern is in a very fragile financial situation."

Board member Jim Francesconi, a former Portland City councilman, said, "I don't see sunshine on the other side," regarding tapping into OUS reserves to lessen SOU's tuition increase for one year, and how it might affect the university system's budget next year.

Also present at the meeting, SOU President Mary Cullinan made the case that without the 9.9 percent tuition increase, SOU could be forced into asking the board for a similarly hefty increase next year. She said the 9.9 percent increase will build a base for avoiding such drastic increases in the future.

"There are different ways we can go about this, but it's not like we made this up and didn't work through a plan with the campus," said Cullinan.

"Without the increase "… we begin to get into a more perilous situation as time goes on," she said.

The higher education board eventually approved the tuition increases at each of its universities, 9-1, with one member absent.

Farbodd Ganjifard, an Oregon State University student who sits on the board, and Brianna Coulombe, an Eastern Oregon University student on the board, voted not to approve the increases.

Students at Portland State University and Western Oregon University, although facing climbing enrollment, will pay less for their educations next year because of a reduction in fees at those schools.

SOU's 9.9 percent increase translates to an extra $12.40 per credit hour for resident undergraduate students. This year's cost per credit hour is $125.

Resident undergraduate students taking a full load of 15 credit hours next academic year will pay an extra $186 per term, for a total of $2,061, not counting fees.

SOU's Master of Education program also will see an 8.3 percent tuition increase next year. No rate increase is proposed for SOU's nonresident undergraduates, but resident graduate students will see a 2.9 percent increase.

Although the State Legislature's Emergency Board could have blocked SOU's increase, it gave no recommendations to the Board of Higher Education about how to decide.

"No one here is happy to make a tuition increase," said Di Saunders, OUS director of communications. "We understand the pain "… but the consequence of not doing this can be worse."

Jay Kenton, OUS vice chancellor for finance and administration, said a lack of state funding is primarily behind the rising cost of tuition at Oregon's public universities.

During the 1999-2001 budget biennium, the state provided OUS with about $754.9 million, said Saunders. This biennium, that figure has fallen to $669.2 million, and the university system is serving about 30,000 more students, she said.

"That is what's putting the students in a bad situation and the campuses in a bad situation "… and it's bad for us," she said. "What we know we do need is people outside of the university system providing support for higher education and talking to their legislators about funding higher education."

To offset the increase in tuition, SOU will reduce total student fees per term by 15.8 percent, or $84. Students will no longer be required to pay a health insurance premium through the school, but it plans to establish a separate money pool for providing health services to students who have no other insurance, said Jon Eldridge SOU vice president of student affairs.

Accounting for $115 in fee reductions, SOU students will be paying $102, or 4.2 percent more, per term, for 15 credits.

Joshua Danielson, a junior business administration major at SOU, who sits on the school's Student Fee Committee and was voted in as next year's Associated Students of SOU president, said he supports the increases because he doesn't want to see the quality of education at SOU drop.

Across the OUS, tuition increased by an average of 3.4 percent over 2011.

"We're reaching the limit of how much we can raise tuition "… before it starts negatively impacting enrollment," said Beaver. "We're doing everything we possibly can to keep those rates down."

This year, because of budget cuts, SOU has laid off at least 12 staff members, including some adjunct professors, and more may go, said Beaver.

"Our preference would be that the state help us out with more support," he said, adding that SOU has two viable streams of income: state dollars and tuition.

"We're glad that they passed the tuition proposals for all the campuses; we all needed to have that," Beaver said.

"We just hope things get better, that the economy improves, and that we can get through this."

Even with the increase, SOU remains the second-most affordable public university in Oregon, slightly more expensive than Eastern Oregon University.

The state's most expensive school for resident undergraduates remains the University of Oregon, where tuition and fees will come to $9,310 annually — an increase of roughly $3,000 in just four years.

Reach Ashland Daily Tidings reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email swheeler@dailytidings.com.