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Higher education still getting too little

Higher education has long been the part of Oregon's public education system that gets plenty of lip service but little love in the form of state financial support. If Oregon ever hopes to realize its lofty goal of "40-40-20," it had better put its money where its mouth is.

The numerical reference is to the officially adopted policy of seeing to it that 40 percent of Oregon adults will hold a four-year college degree, 40 percent will have a two-year associate degree or professional certification and 20 percent will have a high school diploma or its equivalent — by 2025. The 2011 Legislature enacted that goal into law, and set out a plan to pursue it by emphasizing student proficiency over age and grade level.

That sounds great, but it's hard to see how the state expects to succeed when it ranks 47th in the nation in per-student funding for higher education. And the reorganization of the university system to give each institution its own governing board has left the regional campuses, including Southern Oregon University and Oregon Tech, worse off than before.

That's because services that previously were centralized for all campuses, such as human resources and legal representation, are now the responsibility of each university. The decentralized model was pushed at the urging of the University of Oregon, which has the potential to raise more money on its own than as part of a statewide system. But SOU and its fellow regional campuses don't have that kind of fundraising power.

State higher education funding plunged during the Great Recession, from $692 million in 2007-09 to $546 million this biennium. The governor's budget proposed $624 million for the next cycle, the Ways and Means co-chairs' budget $670 million. But enrollment has grown since 2007-09. On a per-student basis, the state's seven university presidents say the system needs $755 million just to equal that appropriation of six years ago.

But making progress toward the 40-40-20 goal means boosting enrollment still further. And that means recruiting students more likely to need extra support, both financial and academic, if they are to earn degrees. That costs money, too.

This is not just — pardon the expression — an academic exercise. Yes, the state's resources are limited; there's only so much money to go around, the needs are many and they all are deserving of support. But if Oregon cannot supply an educated workforce, ready to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world, it cannot hope to rebuild its struggling economy and create the prosperity we all want for the future.