It is fall in the Pacific Northwest. Leaves are changing color but are too damp to crunch underneath your newly purchased school shoes. Portland State University has once again, or is just beginning to, become the center of your universe. You meet your new classmates in the obligatory round of names, majors, and hometowns, just so your professor can “remember everyone’s name faster,” which we all know will never happen. Nevertheless, you learn all about Josh from St. Helens, Maizie from Bend, and who can forget the rare Portland native, Raindrop or Riverbed or something similar. Finally it’s your turn to speak, your name is Corey, a business major from – Bradford, Pa.?
Believe it or not, almost half of Portland State’s population comes from other states – for now. The recent astronomical increase in nonresident tuition has set PSU on a course that is bound to change its demographic forever. After having one of the lowest nonresident tuition rates in the country, PSU has joined the ranks of schools like the University of Oregon who expect nonresident students to make up the difference of Oregon’s poor fiscal situation. While this latest pitfall in the slippery slope of unaffordability for everybody may have only jarred 50 percent of you out of your coffeehouse-induced coma, it’s part of the larger poisonous injection seeping into education that will awaken us all before long.
Before berating the administration in their decision to make sure that those woodworking Pennsylvanians don’t penetrate the Broadway Avenue fortresses, it is necessary to explore the circumstances behind this change and to recognize that PSU was forced into this mess. The education system in Oregon is in a prickly predicament. Budget cuts are being made across the board, from kindergarten to graduate school. The unfortunate result is that students are bearing the cost of their education now more than ever. How did we let it come this far? Government mismanagement and citizen ignorance are the likely culprits. These two separate entities are charged with the responsibility of fostering progress in this state worthy of more than evergreens and salmon protection. The lackadaisical Legislature meets every two years and goes into crisis mode over the problems that have arisen over the previous biennia, and lacks strong leadership or the ability to effect meaningful change in a state plagued by political cover-ups and special-interest pork barreling. Citizens also bear the responsibility of education’s local demise. By continually refusing to tax themselves on Northwest staples such as granola ovens and high-tech REI sleeping bags, Oregonians leave themselves susceptible to regression. It has been more than a century since Oregon has incorporated the right to the initiative, referendum and recall process in its Legislature, yet it has never been used to benefit the state’s largest special-interest group of all – students.
Education is the single most important facet of growth. Economically and socially, nothing is more beneficial than an educated citizenry. While out-of-state students do indeed come from other places, and may return hence taking their tax dollars with them, their presence benefits burgeoning minds by being essential needle points in the Portland bubble. While we may be behind in our commitment to education, Portland is brimming with liberal activism and social change. Sometimes we forget that not everyone comes from a place where freedom of expression flows as plentiful as our herbal tea with soy in cups made from recycled materials. Nonresident students reimburse this university by providing learning tools that no professor can utilize alone. These include experience and perspective. Discussing the American Civil War in a room full of yoga-practicing, bike-riding Northwesterners may be fun, but is not apt to create much debate or controversy. Throw a part-time gun-totin’ reenactment performer in the mix and you’ve got yourself a party. More perspective may be brought to a discussion about the psychological effects of terrorism with a native New Yorker in the room. There is inestimable value, educational and otherwise, in human experience. A 300-plus percent tuition increase threatens the diverse makeup that PSU boasts as the state’s largest university.
So what do we do? Should Oregon students have to pay more to save the wallets of their Midwestern counterparts? Of course not. That would be ridiculously unfair and politically disastrous. At this point in the budget crunch, all students are going to have to pay more and receive less. But, there are options, substantiated options for recovery and growth that are just around the corner. Before you let your pessimistic, rain-soaked attitude deter you from believing in the power of students’ control over their destinies, consider the fact that fall quarter 2006 coincides with one of the most important legislative sessions in recent history for Portland State University. You will no doubt hear more about this as the weeks go by, so I won’t burden you with obscure ballot measure numbers and acronyms while you’re still trying to figure out which 9 a.m. class will be the lesser of two efforts. Oregon’s constitution considers education a basic human right. Where’s the follow-up on this premise? Portland State is an excellent institution and any student would be lucky to study here – it’s just not likely that any student can afford to. In the meantime, if you do meet someone from Iowa or even Texas, offer to buy them lunch. Chances are your state took all their cash.