Oregon Senate upgrades educational objectives

The Oregon Senate passed the “40-40-20” bill (Senate Bill 253) on Feb. 10 by a vote of 28-2, thereby enshrining in state law an ambitious education goal for 2025, one that has been part of Oregon’s policy talk for several years.

The Oregon Senate passed the “40-40-20” bill (Senate Bill 253) on Feb. 10 by a vote of 28-2, thereby enshrining in state law an ambitious education goal for 2025, one that has been part of Oregon’s policy talk for several years.

The goal of SB253 is that by 2025, 40 percent of Oregonians will be earning a four-year degree or higher, 40 percent will be earning an associate’s degree or a gainful post-high school certificate, and 20 percent will be earning a high school diploma.

To realize this goal, Oregon’s universities, community colleges and K–12 schools must work together as a well-orchestrated continuum in the production of educational degrees.

“What is good about the 40-40-20 bill is that it makes it clear the state is ambitious about educating its citizens,” Portland State President Wim Wiewel said. “But we’re now falling short of all three of those numbers.”

The current figures in Oregon are much less outstanding: 29.2 percent, 26.9 percent and 10.9 percent, respectively.

“The bill codifies the statewide goal for educational attainment and serves as the foundation for what reforms are necessary to meet these goals,” Laura Patton, PSU government relations associate, said. “The Oregon University System is currently on track to meet these goals by 2025, but without reform we may lose our momentum.”

According to Hannah Fischer, a student member of the Oregon State Board of Higher Education, the idea for the 40-40-20 bill originated in Oregon’s business community, which believed that the state was not churning out enough college graduates to ensure the kind of highly educated workforce that could retain its own industries and jobs, let alone attract them from elsewhere.

Governor Ted Kulongoski, the board and other interested parties then decided that the next logical step was to set a statewide goal that would enable Oregon to prepare for the 21st century economy.

“Without a goal to reach for, it’s hard to get to the target needed to succeed,” Fischer said.

Diane Saunders, director of communications for the OUS, said that major companies like Intel, while traveling from state to state in search of promising sites and professional talent, focus on such demographic details as the number of bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees and Ph.D.s per adult. Because it is more expensive to import talent from abroad, these companies simply won’t set up shop in Oregon unless it has the talent they demand.

The 40-40-20 bill, which the Oregon House will vote on in the coming weeks, is one of five education-related bills to be considered by the state legislature in the coming months.

Two of these bills—one in the Senate and a virtually identical one in the House—concern the proposed restructuring of the OUS. Another bill, submitted by the University of Oregon, concerns the creation of its own institutional governing board. U of O has also drafted a seperate resolution that would grant the university over

$800 million in bonding

authority so that it could opt out of the state appropriations process.

A final bill—which hails from the same legislative higher education work group that crafted 40-40-20—seeks to establish a Higher Education Coordinating Commission.  

According to Wiewel, the seven institutions that comprise the OUS, currently a state agency, have been making incremental progress toward becoming a public university system since the mid-90s. Over several legislative sessions, a number of the strict rules governing the OUS have been steadily loosened.

But the quantum leap forward in restructuring has occurred because the state is in such dire financial straits. Kulongoski appointed a “reset” cabinet charged with reinventing the way the state government operates, particularly in the areas of higher education, health care and criminal justice—three of Oregon’s biggest “money pits.”

Both the 40-40-20 goal and the restructuring plan emerged from this cabinet, according to Wiewel.

Although the 40-40-20 bill is an historic first step in raising Oregon’s education levels, it will make little practical difference for students in their day-to-day academic experience, according to Wiewel. The bill certainly won’t affect classroom activities or tuition levels in the short run.  

In the long run, however, the bill is likely to become a touchstone that the OUS can use to argue for increased state funding. It will serve to strengthen the hand of students, universities and others who argue that the Legislature should either fund the OUS more robustly or find new revenue streams for it. And eventually, this new set of funding priorities could very well produce changes in students’ tuition, according to Wiewel.

“The reason why tuition has been going up so much is that the state has consistently cut back its funding for higher education,” he said.

How will the OUS know it is fulfilling the 40-40-20 goal? According to Wiewel, the most simple and straightforward way is to track the number of students enrolled in OUS institutions, compare it to the number of degrees the system awards every year, and then calculate these figures against the size of Oregon’s population.

“The fact that we have been increasing our enrollment faster than population growth shows that we are educating more and more of the population and that we are making progress on it,” Wiewel said. ?