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Make the grade

Oregon editors say

When it comes to the state's university system, funding is a pass/fail option

The Statesman Journal, Salem

It makes no sense to gut Oregon's higher education system in order to squeak through the state's current financial woes.

Unfortunately, that could happen. One of the budget plans before the Legislature, the co-chairs' budget, would slash spending for higher education well below 2001-2003 levels. It could close the door to about 14,000 students over two years, and it would hamstring the state's successful efforts to recruit diverse student bodies. That would be a loss for Oregon.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski's proposal would hold higher education spending about even with 2001-03. That's far from ideal, but Richard Jarvis, chancellor of the Oregon University System, says he can stretch that to serve current enrollment or more. Lawmakers should consider this the floor from which they build a higher education budget.

Oregon's universities hold a key to the state's prosperity. They educate the next generation of workers the resource employers depend on. They draw millions in grants for research into new areas of knowledge. Practical applications of that research will drive our future economy.

— A sucker punch to the budget can knock the air out of Oregon's higher-ed system for years. Many students, once turned away, wont make it to college to pursue their dreams. The state's reputation for excellence will suffer, prompting faculty and students to look elsewhere.

Universities can try to stretch the same number of classes and professors to serve the need, but that has drawbacks as well. Students can't get the courses they need to graduate, so they're forced to spend extra terms on campus. Juggling jobs with school takes its toll, and they may drop out short of their degree.

Classes are one important aspect of a university education; the chance to live and work with students from many different backgrounds is another. The legislators' budget proposal could damage Oregon's universities on that score as well.

That's because it would slash &

36;30 million in tuition discounts for students who come from other countries, who have diverse backgrounds to balance out the student body, or who bring special talents to the university. The discounts offset the sticker shock of university tuition, showing hotly recruited students that Oregon wants them.

Without such discounts, these students will go elsewhere. The result: Oregon campuses with a homogenous feel, offering their students little exposure to people who approach problems differently. These graduates will be less attractive to employers who seek not just book knowledge, but the ability to work with all kinds of people.

Oregon's universities hold our promise for a brighter future for this seasons high school graduates, and for the state itself. Legislators must find a way to sustain them until the economy improves.