Failing to make the grade

Oregon higher education experts painted a grim picture of the state’s accessibility to college education at a City Club of Portland luncheon Friday.

“We are reducing the educational level of many of the communities in Oregon, and have been for the past dozen years,” said George Pernsteiner, interim chancellor of the Oregon University System.

Pernsteiner spoke along with Oregon State Board of Higher Education members Timothy Nesbitt and Gretchen Scheutte and Oregon State University President Edward John Ray at the City Club’s weekly lunchtime lecture, which is usually about a political topic. This week’s theme was “Higher Education in Oregon.”

The speakers detailed several concerning trends in the state’s higher education programs. Among them:

-Oregon has over 20,000 more college students than a decade ago, yet has fewer full time faculty members. Professors at Oregon’s state universities are also among the lowest paid in the country.

-The cost of higher education in Oregon has risen to the point where students can no longer pay for college by working full-time in the summer and part-time in the school year.

-Oregon received an “F” for affordability in the 2002 and 2004 Measuring Up reports, a study on higher education in all 50 states by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

-Oregon provides far below the national average in state financial aid for higher education.

The speakers focused in particular on ensuring accessibility to higher education for low income Oregonians.

At Oregon high schools serving families with high poverty rates, only 31 percent of graduates enrolled in college immediately, compared to 51 percent from more affluent communities, Scheutte said.

The speakers emphasized that a college degree is becoming increasingly necessary in order to find well-paying jobs in the 21st century economy, making Oregon’s struggling higher education programs even more concerning.

Raising the number of Oregonians who have college degrees is crucial for the state’s future economic success, the speakers said. Overall only about 30 percent of Oregonians over the age of 25 have college degrees, according to Scheutte.

“There are many steps, no doubt, that must be taken to transform Oregon from a state that talks about education to a state that is about education,” Scheutte said.

Nesbitt, who co-chairs the state Higher Education Board access and affordability workgroup, was particularly critical of the state’s efforts to provide aid to lower income students who are pursuing college education.

Oregon provides $133 per enrolled undergraduate resident student in financial aid each year, Nesbitt said. The national average is $354. California provides $367 per student and Washington $483.

“The most significant cause of our affordability gap is our failure to match the commitment of other states to need based financial aid,” Nesbitt said. “We are simply not doing enough to help Oregon students and their families secure the education they want and need.”

One of the keys to assisting lower income students is the Oregon Opportunity Grant, Nesbitt said, a program that has been drastically under funded. From 2003 to 2005, less than 75 percent of students eligible for the grant received money because there were not enough funds for every student to receive an award.

“It’s a good program,” Nesbitt said. “It can be made to work better, but it needs more resources.”

Gov. Ted Kulongoski has proposed increasing funding for the Opportunity Grant by 109 percent for the 2005-07 budget cycle, from $44 million to $92.3 million. While that is a significant increase, it still leaves Oregon lacking, Nesbitt said

“That amount only gets us half way to what other states are doing,” he said. “But it does allow us to do a lot.”

The governor’s proposed funding level for the grant would provide enough money for all students who are currently eligible for the grant to receive money. It would also allow the program to be extended to part-time students. However, the two higher education budgets currently under consideration by the Oregon Legislature include funding for a two-year tuition freeze, but do not fully fund the Opportunity Grant.

Nesbitt said he would like to see the Opportunity Grant eventually become more like the federal Pell Grant, where varying amounts of aid can be given based on a family’s economic level, allowing for more assistance to middle-income families.