Oregon colleges, universities release report recommending increased higher ed funding

A new report commissioned by Oregon’s higher education leaders suggests that the state should invest more money in colleges and universities as “central players” in creating a stronger economy and to make college more accessible and affordable.

The Oregon Community College Association and Oregon Council of Presidents — a group of state university leaders — commissioned the report from the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems earlier this year. It cost $235,000 said Dana Richardson, executive director of the president’s council. The two college associations and foundations including the Oregon Community Foundation and Ford Family Foundation picked up the tab.

The sweeping 97-page “Oregon Higher Education Landscape Study” recommends everything from creating a “clear vision” for Oregon’s future, to increasing college affordability for students and collaboration between Oregon institutions.

The report argues that, with more funding, Oregon’s colleges and universities would be poised to drive economic innovation and boost the state’s income tax base by moving Oregonians into higher paying careers. But Oregon is “hampered by the absence of a clear vision for the future of the state,” authors wrote. They recommend that Oregon policy leaders develop a statewide economic plan that would set priorities for higher ed leaders and capitalize on the ways colleges can contribute to state growth.

“Colleges and universities are the state’s greatest assets upon which to build the new and better Oregon,” the report says, “But it will take more investment – and more targeted investment than the state has heretofore been willing to make.”

Colleges are also in a financial bind, the report says. Education costs are going up while their tuition base is not – Oregon’s population of high-school graduates is projected to stay steady, the report says, but decline in other states where Oregon colleges recruit. Oregon appropriates less money to its four-year institutions than other states do, it says, and has shifted the burden of paying for school increasingly onto students.

Schools could provide “better service at a lower cost” if they share administrative costs and partner on academic programs, the report says. They could also draw more students by partnering with high schools to bolster the state’s falling college-going rates, the report says, and improve their own student retention and graduation rates.

But “the bottom line is that tuition revenues alone will not pay for the investments needed to create a better Oregon,” authors write.


Screenshot from the Oregon Council of Presidents and Oregon Community College Association report showing higher education reliance on tuition dollars in Oregon and the United States.Courtesy NCHEMS report

More state funding could make higher education more accessible for students, the report says. Oregon’s leaders could give schools more funding in exchange for a promise to maintain or lower tuition rates, the report says. And the study found that Oregon’s financial aid model is geared toward students who are recent high school graduates, but doesn’t work well for community college students who are generally older and only study part-time.

“It is in the state’s best interest to ensure that students of all types can afford to go to college and stay in college long enough to complete a program of study,” the report says.

Sen. Michael Dembrow, who serves on the Legislature’s joint task force on student success for underrepresented students in higher education, said the report mirrors feedback that the task force heard about affordability and the need to expand student aid. He said the report will help the task force as it puts together recommendations for the 2023 Legislature.

“It will help to put Oregon’s challenges into a national perspective,” he said. “The focus on the connection between workforce and Oregon’s economy I think comes through very clearly. The only way we’re going to meet our workforce needs is to expand to incorporate non-traditional students.”

Ben Cannon, executive director of the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission, and commision chair Terry Cross said they were pleased to see the outside report aligned with priorities that the commission has already established, including a push for equity and affordability for students.

In a budget request this year, the commission proposed drastically increasing funds for student financial aid and ongoing funding for a grant that covers the average cost of college for members of Oregon’s federally recognized tribes, both moves toward greater equity and access for Oregon students.

However, budget requests are still in their early stages and will be largely influenced by Oregon’s next governor.

“We are hoping this (report) will catch the attention of key decision makers,” said Nagi Naganathan, president of the Oregon Institute of Technology and chair of the Council of Presidents. “This is not just about higher education, this is about higher education being a catalyst for statewide economic prosperity and social mobility.”

This story was brought to you through a partnership between The Oregonian/OregonLive and Report for America. Learn how to support this crucial work.

Sami Edge covers higher education for The Oregonian. You can reach her at sedge@oregonian.com or (503) 260-3430.

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