Colleges push back against budget cuts

Joan McGuire

Governor’s budget maintains public university support at same level

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This is the time of year when prospective college students are mulling over their admissions offers. Graduate students are repeating the process. I was admitted to all five graduate programs to which I applied, but without funding. The debt at every one of them would exceed my expected starting salary. I called each program to explain I didn’t have the money. They responded, “Neither do we.”  

The budgets at each of these state schools, including the University of Oregon, have been slashed year after year. They petitioned me to join their departments, but explained they had no flexibility in their department funding.

Other schools in the Oregon university system are no exception. In response to the proposed 2019-2021 legislative budget released last week, a group of higher education advocates called it woefully inadequate for funding postsecondary schools.

The cuts to public education mean tuition hikes, loss of extracurricular activities and mounting student loan debt. Last year the University of Oregon board of trustees voted to increase nonresident tuition by 2.8%. Graduate tuition increases range from no change to 5.4%. Without more funding from the Legislature, the board says it might have to raise resident undergraduate tuition by more than 5% along with making budget cuts. 

Oregon’s student debt burden now totals $18 billion. It has become so pronounced that some employers are offering employees student debt relief benefits instead of retirement contributions. 

Related Story: Student loan debt soars, employers pitch in

“Oregon students entering college today have known nothing but cuts to public education,” wrote members of the Higher Education Alliance in a press release. “They were born as the Legislature held a record five special sessions to slash budgets. They have watched class sizes grow, school years shorten, extracurricular activities disappear, and tuition skyrocket.”

The Higher Education Alliance members who signed the press release comprise most of the state’s large community colleges and public universities, including Oregon State University, the University of Oregon and Portland State University.

Governor Kate Brown’s budget for 2019-2021 includes $736.9 million from the general fund in operations support for public universities, an amount unchanged from the last biennium.

Meanwhile the costs of higher education are rising. Universities’ limited budget forces cuts to career and technical education (CTE) graduates and career counseling services, critical for producing a talented workforce for the business community. 

“When you cut funding for higher education you’re cutting faculty and staff, and programs that help students succeed and graduate,” says Lizbeht Marquez Gutierrez, a sophomore studying sociology at Western Oregon University and member of the Oregon Students Association, a nonprofit that represents college students. “Every time they (tuition rates) go up students get priced out.”

Marquez Gutierrez says the Students Association is asking for a $1 billion in public university funding, and $787 million in support for community colleges. This level of funding, the students believe, aligns with what university board members have said can support college programs without hiking up tuition. Students are writing to legislators and holding lobby days to voice their concerns. 

I reached out to Rep. Dan Rayfield, a member of the budget writing committee, for an explanation of the cuts. He couldn’t be reached in time, but the budget notes some efforts to control costs for students. An investment of $856 million in the public university support fund is designed to keep tuition increases below 5% and balance out some of the cuts to state programs. The budget also includes funding for up to $173 million in capital projects.

Higher education is not the only state function clamoring for funds. The state court system is also chronically underfunded. The Public Employees’ Retirement System crisis and other fiscal issues have led to shortages in a number of areas.

Related Story: Oregon courts face gaping budget gap

The cost of many professional degrees has escalated, often out of proportion to earnings trends. Getting a law degree has become three to five times more expensive than it was 30 years ago, according to Law School Transparency, a consumer advocacy nonprofit.

For the urban planning and landscape architecture schools I was accepted to, I’m contemplating taking out $60,000 in loans for in-state tuition, roughly equal to my expected starting salary in the new field. Like many people in these trades, I will likely be paying off loans for 10 years or more. Unlike academic research degrees, professional programs do not provide much financial support. Students pay close to the full-tuition cost, no matter how much they will make in the field.

For undergraduate students seeking four-year degrees, the numbers can be even more unbalanced, and the payoff less clear. It seems unlikely that the situation will improve, as Oregon voters have year after year struck down bonds for higher education funding.

Marquez Gutierrez said in a Higher Education Alliance press release that “When I look at that budget I think what that means for me and my peers in terms of tuition increases, debt taken on, additional work hours added, or meals skipped because we don’t have enough money for groceries.”

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