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It's time for lawmakers to support Oregon higher education

This was a session full of historic wins for education in Oregon, with the Legislature making long-overdue investments in K-12 education through the Student Success Act. Yet the job is not done; the lack of investment in higher education thus far is a glaring sign that we have unfinished business.

According to a recent Georgetown Job Growth Study, 65% of job openings will require some form of post-secondary education by 2020. This shows that in order to truly create an excellent education in Oregon, with a strong economy where working families and local businesses can thrive, we need to stop the trend of slashing budgets for community colleges and public universities.

Here in the Rogue Valley, higher education serves so many community members in preparing them for the workforce. For example, Southern Oregon University’s College of Business prepares our future entrepreneurs, and the School of Education prepares our next generation of K-12 educators in the Rogue Valley. Education in the Rogue Valley is severely underfunded, and this puts SOU at risk for large tuition increases. These increases will immediately bring students to ask, “can I afford a 13.5% increase to the cost of a credit, which would mean I have to find an additional $368 for each traditional four-credit class?” This should not be something students are forced to ask themselves when it comes to gaining an education to prepare themselves for a future and be well educated in the areas where they will later give back to society.

The growing crisis in higher education access puts Oregon’s economy in peril. Skyrocketing tuition costs and deep cuts to our essential student success services as well as the faculty and staff that help us succeed are the statewide consequence of the Legislature’s reluctance to act on higher education funding. When students face annual tuition hikes, student debt skyrockets and students struggle with food insecurity and housing insecurity at alarming rates. We have students that commute three hours every day to get an education, because students are passionate about the education they receive, and they are working hard to better themselves and prepare to enter the workforce. The lack of state funding has been a continuous trend, and a change is long past due.

Our legislators must ask themselves: Should Oregon’s education system be about what you can do or the hard work you put in, or should it be about how far you can reach in your pocket and how deep in debt are you willing to go? If we want students to succeed in preparing for their careers, we need them to be able to afford to complete their degrees.

It’s time for the Legislature to make real investments in higher education. It simply isn’t right for Oregon to say we will support students and then leave them on their own as they transition from high school to college. We’ve made great strides in beginning to invest in a quality education system for Oregonians, now let’s finish the job.

Britney Sharp is incoming president of the Associated Students of Southern Oregon University.