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Paying the price

Two students are studying in the commuter resource center at Southern Oregon University on a rainy Friday. They hope to be teachers one day, but on this day they are freshmen nervously playing with their long hair as they discuss a 12 percent tuition hike for next year.

“I feel like I don’t know where that money is going,” said Kendall Conrad, a commuter student who lives in Medford.

“It definitely adds up," her friend Jordan Hewey said. "I feel like, 'Is it worth it?' Sometimes. I want to be a teacher. I’m doing something I love, but for a price.”

The hike approved Thursday by Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission means students will see an increase of $18.17 per credit. A full time student must carry at least 12 credit hours, but needs to average 15 to graduate in four years. That puts the increase at $654 to $819 annually for students carrying 12 to 15 credits.

“I’m a theater major. I take a large load, so it’s going to affect me,” said junior Alex Giorgi, who transferred from Portland. “I don’t claim to know a lot about politics, but 12 percent is a lot. It’s pretty outrageous.”

SOU students face the largest tuition increases in the state. Oregon Institute of Technology students will see increases of 7.4 percent. Requests for increases by two universities, University of Oregon (11.48 percent) and Portland State University (8.37), were rejected.

SOU’s tuition has increased by an average of 2.5 percent each year for the past four years. The overall "cost of attendance" — a combination of student fees, housing, tuition and textbooks — will go up by 5.8 percent this coming academic year, SOU said in a prepared statement. The school also noted that SOU remains among the least expensive of the seven state public universities. SOU also said it would provide an additional $500,000 in institutional aid for students least able to afford the increased cost.

SOU spokesman Joe Mosely also said in an email Monday that the increase "is not yet set in stone."

"... We are doing everything we can to lower it," he said. "President (Linda) Schott has committed to reducing the tuition increase by 1 percent for every $20 million the Legislature allocates to higher education above $690 million."

Giorgi, however, said the school could have sought out other options or at least had "real" discussions with students.

“I understand it’s one of the cheapest schools in Oregon, but that doesn’t help me,” she said. “It went from 'maybe' to 'it’s happening.' It was more of an announcement than a discussion.”

Giorgi said he’ll have to find a job and somehow find off-campus housing to make ends meet. “It’s not like 30 years ago," he said. "It’s really discouraging and gives a lot of stress and anxiety on students.”

He pauses as he plays a board game with his family in the student union. They've come to see a theater performance he is in this weekend. “It’s a struggle," he said. "A bunch of things are wrong with the way things are going.”

Public universities have asked for $767 million in public support for the next two years. That’s $100 million more than Gov. Kate Brown recommended in her budget, which she released in December before the legislative session. Lawmakers are dealing with a $1.6 billion shortfall in the budget.

None of that comforts Joel Ferraro, a student in his third year who's studying lighting for theater. “It was a lot cheaper," he said, "but now it’s not so much of an advantage. I have friends paying out-of-state tuition and they don’t know if they’ll be able to continue.”

He said he's feeling frustrated at what he describes as a mixed message. “We’re so encouraged to go to school," Ferraro said, "but the job market isn’t as open, and a college-level degree isn’t as valuable.”

For Conrad and Hewey, it’s not just the impact on their wallets and education, but also their professors, who they feel are underpaid compared to administrative staff. “There’s so many extra staff that do less and get paid more than professors," said Conrad. “For the amount of money we’re paying, they should get paid more.”

None of the students say they will quit.

"I’ll come back," said Hewey. "It’s kind of my only option. I’m in a program here.”

But, she adds, she worries that won’t be true for others. “More people will drop out. We’ll have fewer educated people. I don’t think it’s fair.”

— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at julieanneakins@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.

Students gather Monday outside Stevenson Union at Southern Oregon University. Students recently learned that tuition is going up at SOU. [Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta]