Ballot measure to create state financial aid endowment is defeated

Oregon State Ballot Measure 86, also known as the Oregon Opportunity Initiative, was defeated in the general election on Nov. 4, with 57 percent of Oregon voters opposing the measure. This measure would have established an endowment fund for the ongoing support of scholarships for Oregonians pursuing post-secondary education.

The measure was proposed by Oregon State Treasurer Ted Wheeler, who wrote in a statement to the Portland Business Journal that he will continue to work on the issue despite the defeat of the measure.

“Measure 86 was a bold idea. In a state that can’t seem to prioritize higher education, we came up with innovative ways to leverage non-tax resources to get the job done,” Wheeler said in the statement. “Sometimes new ideas take time to catch on. Measure 86 sparked a vibrant conversation about access to college, student debt and vocational job training in Oregon. I am committed to continuing that conversation.”

More controversially, this measure would have amended the state constitution to authorize the initial financing of this endowment fund via debt. Under the current state constitution, bond financing can only be used for the construction and upgrades of tangible assets such as buildings and other infrastructure.

“The voters spoke on that topic—at least, we feel with regard to issuing bonds to seek that fund—but certainly, we’re open to a number of solutions moving forward,” said Michael Cox, communications and outreach director for the Oregon State Treasurer.

Cox expanded on the campaign for this ballot measure and what future steps could look like regarding college affordability.

“First, we need to advocate for more money for the Oregon Opportunity Grant program, because during the campaign it became clear that that program is very underfunded,” Cox said.

Cox said that increasing participation in the Oregon 529 College Savings Network (an investment tool that helps Oregonians save for higher education expenses through federal and state taxes) among lower-income communities emerged as another priority.

“We will take a good hard look at finding ways to incentivize participation [in the savings network] so that people can begin to save while their kids are young,” Cox said.

Heather Mattoli, assistant director of Financial Aid at Portland State, said that even had the endowment been approved and funded to the proposed level of $100 million, the impact would have been fairly small. Mattoli added that even small amounts of scholarships can make a tangible difference for students struggling to afford basic necessities like food and textbooks.

Mattoli also said that scholarships help students finish their degrees and increased access to scholarships tends to improve overall university-wide graduation rates.

“Students who are offered scholarships, regardless of the amount—you’re going to see a student having more faith and more connectivity to their university—and they are going to graduate at a rate higher than students who don’t receive scholarship funding,” she said.

Mario Parker-Milligan, the legislative director for the Oregon Student Association, said that although the OSA is not allowed to take official stances on ballot measures, they did support the legislative referral that turned into Measure 86.
Parker-Milligan also said that expanding aid is increasingly not feasible as the sole solution to the issue of college affordability.

“The simple fact is the model of high tuition, high aid isn’t working when the aid isn’t increasing at the rate that the cost of attending college is—including tuition, fees, housing, food [and] life expenses,” he said. “We need to focus on bringing tuition down so Oregonians aren’t continuously being priced out of a public post-secondary education.”

Mattoli said that students should be aware and proactive in seeking existing scholarship resources, including the Oregon Opportunity Grant, which has a deadline of Feb. 1. The PSU Foundation scholarship application closes on Feb. 15.