State university panel recommends fee increase

Students attending Southern Oregon University and the state's six other public universities could face a 5 percent tuition increase next year after a panel voted Friday to forward proposed increases to the full Board of Higher Education for review next month.

Tuition and fees vary by university, as do the proposed increases.

Under the recommendations, students at the state's most expensive public university, the University of Oregon, would pay $9,852 in tuition and fees next academic year, a 5.8 percent increase. Five years ago, students paid about $6,500.

Eastern Oregon University would remain the least expensive, with a 5.3 percent increase taking annual tuition and fees to $7,620.

Portland State University and Southern Oregon University, with increases of 3.8 percent and 5 percent, respectively, would stay just below the $8,000 threshold — at least for now.

Craig Morris, vice president for finance and administration at Southern Oregon, said during his presentation to the panel that the university's long-term strategy is for a 5.5 percent to 6 percent tuition increase in 2014-15, a 4 percent to 5 percent increase in 2015-16, and a 3.5 percent to 4 percent increase in 2016-17.

The hikes debated Friday are needed because retirement and health care costs have soared over the past five years while state support has plunged, said Jan Lewis, the Oregon University System's assistant vice chancellor for budget operations.

Next year's proposed increases, though well above the cost of inflation, would be the smallest since 2008-09. Tuition went up 6 percent last year and 7.5 percent in 2011-12. Lewis compared the trend to a large ship that can't be turned around immediately:

"But we are headed in the right direction," Lewis said.

Debt-ridden students disagreed. Several testified they are reaching their breaking point and asked the committee to freeze tuition.

"Public education exists explicitly for the purpose of providing accessible and quality education to all regardless of economic status," said Dana Rognlie, a graduate student at the University of Oregon. "But public universities are now a contradiction in terms, providing education only to those who can afford it or are willing to be indebted for decades."

Galen Russell, 19, a student at Portland State University, said he is lucky to be living with his parents, who help him pay for food and books.

"But even after all that support, after just two and a half terms, I am already over $6,000 in debt," he said. "And it is nauseating to say that I'm one of the lucky ones."

Student opposition, though the norm, was not unanimous. Sam Dotters-Katz, incoming student body president at the University of Oregon, said the suggested tuition increase at the UO is reasonable in light of the alternative — a potential reduction in course offerings and services.

"It's very easy to say increasing tuition hurts students, because it does," he said. "But with the current situation with the Legislature, which has disinvested both funding and interest and imagination in higher education, there's only so far you can stretch every dollar."

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