News stories and editorial pieces have drawn attention to the dramatic increase in tuition and other costs for students at Oregon's public universities. Graduates in 2007 are carrying a record debt load of $19,000 — the eighth highest average debt in the nation. Oregon's community colleges boast the second highest tuition rates in the West. Average annual in-state tuition and fees have climbed from $1,943 in 2001 to $3,074 today — triple the cost of California's community colleges. Additionally, Oregon state aid is funded at embarrassingly low levels, ranking 45th nationally on higher education spending.
It's a sad state of affairs —for Oregon, for the higher ed system, for the average Oregon family that must devote 36 percent of its income after financial aid to ensuring their child can attend a public university, and for students who graduate with a degree but also with extraordinary debt. Everyone loses when education and opportunities for career success are limited or altogether unavailable.
So what can be done to address this issue? The Oregon Legislature took a good first step this year with an increase in Oregon Opportunity Grant funding to help students needing tuition assistance, boosting funding by $35 million to dramatically increase the number of students helped. In 2008-09, this grant will be funded at $72 million.
Businesses, organizations, and individuals can be part of the solution, too. They can consider donating funds, volunteering, and participating actively in the futures of Oregon students.
Some ideas for making a difference include:
- Establishing or contributing to a scholarship fund or tuition assistance program through The Oregon Community Foundation, the Oregon Student Assistance Commission and other organizations. Through such funds, worthy and financially needy students' lives can be transformed.
- Supporting mentoring programs like Access to Student Assistance Programs in Reach of Everyone (ASPIRE) that help students prepare for post-secondary education and ensure those who want to attend public institutions can do so. ASPIRE offers guidance on financial aid and scholarship application and admissions processes in nearly 100 Oregon high schools, serving 8,300 students and involving 1,400 volunteers.
- Becoming involved in local and state decision-making and legislative processes, ensuring lawmakers are working toward solutions that benefit the state's higher education system. Encourage and assist the higher education system to hold costs down whenever possible, cut waste, find efficiencies, and pool resources.
- Advocating for the under-represented student population, particularly former foster youth, who need support accessing higher education opportunities. Contributing to the Oregon Student Assistance Commission's Dream Scholarship, specifically for former foster youth, is one way to help.
It's clear that something must be done to soften the impact of rising tuition and fees. It's clear there needs to be steadfast dedication to ensuring Oregon students have access to higher education that is best suited for them. We can all be a part of making this issue a priority — and making a real difference to the future of this state and its citizens.
Linda Evans lives in Medford and is a member of The Oregon Community Foundation's Southern Oregon Leadership Council (www.ocf1.org, or call 503-227-6846).