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SOU announces hefty tuition increase

Southern Oregon University announced Thursday a tuition hike of at least $15 per resident undergraduate credit, possibly going up as high as $23, depending on what the Legislature allocates to higher education this session.

Based on 15 credit hours per term, tuition costs would increase $675 to $1,035, or 8.5 to 13.5 percent, SOU officials said in a news release. Tuition for nonresident undergraduates will increase by 5 percent, or $26 per credit hour for a total increase of $1,170 per year.

SOU will provide $500,000 in additional aid for those who are least able to afford the tuition increases, the release said. The overall cost for tuition, student fees, housing and meals is expected to rise 4.39 to 5.21 percent, the release said.

The hike starts this September and, because of $1 million in departmental cost-cutting, tightening on food and lodging costs for students and a drive toward no/low cost textbooks, which saved $600,000 this year and will save another $400,000 in the coming year.

After hearing about the state’s improved revenue forecast, SOU President Linda Schott said the increases might be smaller. Schott said the board had no “painless” option, but this choice is best, “as lawmakers continue to shift the burden of higher education from the state to our students and their families.”

At a sometimes emotional meeting of the Board of Trustees, which voted unanimously to support the increase, Schott ran through scores of number-crammed slides, finally pointing to the big budget torpedoes — rising pensions and medical costs.

“It all means our revenues feel tugged at from a lot of different directions,” Schott said, “but we remain at the bottom of the pack among the most affordable.”

Trustees Chairman Lyn Hennion called the tuition plan “affordable,” adding, it “demonstrates our commitment to preserving access to a college education ... while balancing the board’s responsibility to safeguard the fiscal health of the institution.”

Hennion added that, “an SOU degree will remain an affordable and clear path toward a successful future.”

Trustee Janelle Wilson, an SOU Director of Student Affairs, said the budget feels “emotional, frustrating and it will fall on the lower economic students and their families, who will be disproportionately affected by this increase. I implore the board that it’s not sustainable to have this rate of increase every other year.”

Trustee Les AuCoin, a former Oregon congressman for two decades and former SOU teacher, agreed, noting, “She was saying this is all we can do to send a message to the Legislature, as board members, faculty, students that, despite all our efforts, their disinvestment in higher education continues.”

SOU’s Tuition Advisory Committee, made up of students, faculty and administrators, met more than a dozen times and voted unanimously for the hikes, she said. It reflects over $1 million in cost-cutting by departments in the past year.

Rising costs of pensions and health insurance mean even if the Legislature approves the same level of funding for higher education as last biennium, those costs would result in a $120 million hit to colleges and universities statewide, SOU spokesman Joe Mosley said in an email.

Thirty years ago, the state paid for two-thirds of higher education while tuition paid the rest; now it’s the reverse, SOU officials say. The school is waiting to see how much state lawmakers provide in order to determine the final tuition hike, Mosley said.

Legislators are considering options that would increase state funding for higher education by $40.5 million or $80 million beyond current levels, he said. Those would place SOU’s tuition hike on the lower end of the spectrum.

SOU likely won’t learn the final state allocation till early July but will continue lobbying for more funding in the meanwhile, officials said. All seven public universities in Oregon are raising tuition, according to the release.

Schott said the average SOU graduate leaves with just over $23,000 debt, which is “well below” other Oregon public universities. She said there’s much talk about “administrative bloat — and that’s where all the money is going,” but SOU is “very lean, thinly staffed, stretched, overworked, often tired” and laid off 20 percent of faculty in retrenchments of recent years.

Asked after the meeting what she would like to say to students, Schott replied, “I’m sorry.”

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Alexandri Battles, education major, walks through the campus of Southern Oregon University on Thursday.