WOU seeks fixed tuition guarantee

    Western Oregon University (WOU) has proposed tuition freeze for the incoming freshmen of Fall 2007. The plan will raise tuition by 16 percent, then lock in that rate for the next four years.

    Granted that they complete their degree in four years, the freshman class of 2007 at WOU would be guaranteed that their tuition will not increase for the duration of their undergraduate enrollment.

    It is hoped that the plan will increase enrollment by enabling students to reliably anticipate their college expenses in a time when state funding is dropping and annual tuition can rise as much as 12 percent from year to year.

    However, the program will have some drawbacks for students looking for stability in their college tuition. The guarantee will only be good for four years, whereas most college students do not complete their degree in this time span. The first year’s tuition will be relatively high, at a university known for reasonable tuition rates. Also, the tuition freeze would not include fees, which can be as much as $1000 per year. 

    The Oregon State Board of Higher Education gave a warm reception to the Western Promise, which was outlined by David McDonald, interim dean of admissions at WOU, in their session on Sept. 8. “The board seemed supportive, and there was no major dissent. But one caveat was a need for more investigation into student impact,” said Diane Saunders, director of communications for the Oregon University System. The board will vote on the issue in its next session on Oct. 6. 

    Lindsay Desrochers, Portland State University’s vice president for finance administration, does not foresee a similar plan in Portland State’s future.

    ”They’re taking a calculated gamble,” Desrochers said. “You can guarantee tuition, but you can’t guarantee what the state will do. [State funding] has been an erratic pattern. What happens if they run out of money two years from now? Then the financial burden will be on the next class of students.”

    Derochers said that PSU could not afford the risk of a similar plan. The Western Promise is a way to address that university’s need for more enrollment, and PSU does not share that concern.

    WOU has the largest share of first-generation and federal aid-dependent college students of all Oregon public universities. The Western Promise was designed to cater to the concerns of its particular student body and the families supporting these students, as tuition continues to increase much faster than the median family income. With state funding wavering from one year to the next, it has become difficult for these families to financially plan for a bachelor’s degree.

    Courtney Sproule, communications director for the Oregon Student Association (OSA), which will take a formal stance on the plan in its next session, expressed concerns that the OSA had regarding the four-year nature of the plan. “We think it should be designed to allow the average student to graduate.” With only 58 percent of students graduating within six years, the average student will not realistically graduate within the four-year cap that the plan guarantees.

    ”Four years really is not what it takes to graduate any more,” said Derochers. Gerry Blackney, a member of the State Board of Higher Education (SBHE) and former WOU student body president. Derochers has also objected to restricting the freeze to four years.

    Other universities have instituted tuition guarantees with much success. Western Illinois University has guaranteed flat tuition rates since 1999, and reports positive results. In Oregon, Willamette University fixed their tuition with a similar program from 1990 to 1993, and reported increased enrollment. 

    The SBHE plans to propose a 3 to 3.5 percent annual increase in tuition over the next two years in the next legislative session. This would be an improvement over 2005, where the legislature projected a 12 percent increase in PSU tuition, according to Sproule. After lobbying efforts by major student advocates, however, an additional $17.25 million was appropriated to reduce the tuition increase to 3 percent. According to the OUS, the 2004-2005 average annual tuition increase for Oregon public universities was 10 percent.