Legislators express budget concerns

Oregon legislators heard from groups ranging from PSU students, to electronics employers, to fruit growers in a public hearing Monday that wrapped up two weeks of testimony on the budget for, and future of, higher education in Oregon.

In those two weeks, lawmakers have heard detailed and sometimes troubling accounts of the problems facing higher education, but not many solutions.

“Education is the epitome of opening doors,” ASPSU state affairs director Kelvin Nicholson told Oregon representatives. “By cutting education, we are sealing those doors closed.”

Nicholson, a business major, testified that students were not the only victims of budget cuts. Oregon professors are some of the worst paid in the nation, he said, including his mother, a professor at Southern Oregon University. While Nicholson’s mother is still employed, he said “most likely she’ll be finding a new job – one that has job security.”

Steadily increasing student enrollment at a time of falling state education dollars have left Oregon students and teachers, and even the buildings that house them, facing some of the leanest years in decades. Yet Oregon University System (OUS) administrators have portrayed the challenge of providing a quality education that is both affordable and accessible as a triangular table for which legislators can only afford two legs – no matter which two legs they buy, the table never stands.

And two legs is probably a best-case scenario.

“Under the governor’s budget, we cannot meet the demand (for college education) at the present quality we’re offering, and we’re concerned that the level of quality that we’re offering is at the bottom end of a comparison with our peers,” OUS Chancellor Richard Jarvis told the joint subcommittee on education at a hearing last week.

At that point, Jarvis was cut off by Rep. Susan Morgan (R-Myrtle Creek), who reminded him that funding levels would actually be lower than those he had in mind.

“We’re not going to fund the governor’s budget,” she said.

Of the three yardsticks – quality, affordability and access – quality may have suffered the least.

According to Leslie Lehman, vice president of the state board of higher education, Oregon universities are still holding their own. This judgment is based on freshman retention rate (the number of freshman who return to become sophomores), on surveys answered by recent graduates about their education and on the amount of money faculty researchers win in grants.

If quality has stayed put, however, affordability and accessibility have not. Although the two might seem the same, educators use affordability to mean how well those already in school can pay for it. Accessibility is the number of people that can get in to school. The more accessible a school is, the more people might enroll, but with less money per student, the school would probably become less affordable.

The opposite is also true. Making a school less accessible generally makes it more affordable, or at least cheaper to operate, because with fewer students the money goes farther.

The funding model the university uses is more complicated than that. Oregon Universities use a system that allows money to “follow the students,” which means that more enrolled students bring more money to the institution. With money for extra enrollment limited, that is true only to a point.

After the money for extra students is exhausted, there is no state contribution towards the students’ education. At the University of Oregon, there are over 1,000 students for which there is no state support, University of Oregon President Dave Frohnmayer testified last week.

Affordability is much more than tuition. In comparing states, number crunchers consider an average family’s ability to pay tuition, a state’s commitment to helping those who need it and a student’s reliance on loans, instead of grants, to pay for college.

Based on those categories, a nationwide survey that grades state education systems gave Oregon an “F” for affordability, one of only three states in the country to flunk.

Part of the reason for the grade is Oregon’s limited state aid, the Oregon Opportunity Grant.

“The grant is in horrible shape,” Jarvis said. “While it remains in this shape, we won’t get rid of the F.”

In just the last year, Oregon students have received far less aid and relied more on more on loans to pay for college. In the state with the worst unemployment rate in the nation, debt-ridden college graduates are in an unenviable situation.

“I have a ton of debts, and I don’t see a job that’s going to cover them,” said Susan Hamilton, a senior at PSU who’s looking for a job in social work.

The effects may be worst for those who need it most.

“As we shift to an increasingly strong loan-supported system,” Jarvis said in testimony last week, “that has an increasingly adverse affect on low-income and first-generation students.”

Teachers have also been affected.

“Faculty compensation at most OUS institutions is at or near the bottom of their peers. Combined with very high workloads, non-competitive compensation threatens our ability to attract and retain excellent faculty,” Lehmann said.

Faculty salaries in Oregon are among the lowest in the West, although there is a small bright spot – faculty benefits are among the best in the nation.

Across the OUS system facilities managers have put off basic building maintenance for as long as possible, but PSU has a disproportionate amount. With total repairs totaling 28 percent of the value of all the buildings on campus, PSU has a higher rate of deferred maintenance than any other OUS institution.

“If PSU was a gas station, it would be like the roof was leaking and we were fixing it with duct tape,” said David Johnson, a history professor at PSU and editor of the Pacific Historical Review.