Kerr Administration Building 01 (copy)

The Kerr Administration Building on the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis.

The legislative session could have gone worse for Oregon's public universities: After all, before the session began, Gov. Kate Brown had recommended flat funding for the state's seven four-year institutions, even though the schools were projecting cost increases of more than 8%, increases driven by health care and public pension costs.

At the time, Brown termed that particular budget recommendation "unacceptable." If you wonder why the governor advanced it in the first place, there's an answer: She was thinking that higher education could share in the proceeds of a potential gross receipts tax on certain Oregon businesses. 

The problem was, legislative leaders weren't thinking that way at all: Their intent was to send every dime of the estimated $2 billion from that tax package to K-12 schools.

And that's precisely how it played out. 

Brown, who has talked about creating a "seamless system of education from cradle to career," expressed disappointment that the tax package — which now seems increasingly likely to be referred to voters — didn't include money for higher education.

But, as it turns out, Oregon's higher-than-expected tax revenues have left the state's universities with a bit of a parting gift: Legislators are recommending a two-year higher education budget of $836.9 million, a $100 million increase over the last biennium. 

And legislative leaders have left higher education officials with this clear message: Be grateful. 

Speaker of the House Tina Kotek termed the $100 million extra "a substantial investment in higher ed," and added that it's unlikely that the universities will see additional state funding this session.

"We got as much as we think we can get into their system and now they're going to have to show us why they can't live with it," Kotek said.

Well, OK. Let us start: Even with the additional $100 million, the state's universities still will be forced to raise tuition and make cuts. At Oregon State University, school officials estimate that they'll need to trim $8 million in expenses over the next fiscal year. Those cuts will come on top of tuition increases of 4.29% next year for resident undergraduates and 3.81% for nonresidents. 

In other words, students will pay more for an experience that almost certainly will be diminished for at least some students in some ways. And add the increased tuition to the groaning debt many students will carry after graduation.

It's the same story at the state's other universities, although many of those schools have announced tuition increases of more than 5%. (The 5% figure is important, because the state's Higher Education Coordinating Commission must approve any tuition increases above that amount.)

This is just the latest chapter in a story that's been unfolding on the state's public campuses for more than a quarter-century: Some 30 years ago, the state paid for two-thirds of the universities' operating budgets, with tuition covering the remaining third. Today, that ratio has flipped.

Legislators' reluctance to earmark more general fund money to higher education may reflect a belief that, hey, schools can always charge more for tuition. But it could well be that students and their families are nearing a point where those costs become unaffordable.

Some university officials have suggested taking a page from the K-12 playbook and organizing a legislative committee to tour the state, getting a firsthand look at campus needs; a similar strategy resulted in the $2 billion tax package for K-12. 

But that strategy doesn't necessarily translate to higher education, in part because most legislators have more of a connection to a K-12 district than to a university campus. Also, it's not at all clear if there's a funding idea floating around similar to the business tax. 

It adds up to another two years of well-meaning indifference to the needs of Oregon higher education. But what else is new? (mm)

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