Higher education goes begging again

Someday, this recession will be over.

At that point, there will be an advantage for the states in position to apply research resources and an education work force to the opportunities of the new economy.

That has never been Oregon before, but in the future it needs to be.

So even in this desperation year in Salem, the Legislature should turn from its traditional practice of putting higher education at the bottom of the budget pile.

Oregon's students, the future of the state, have already reached that conclusion. The state's universities are swamped for next year, including waves of top students who've had to give up on out-of-state hopes or even return from more expensive colleges. From The Oregonian's annual survey of local valedictorians last week, it seems clear that the state system is in line for a windfall.

"We are looking," says higher education Chancellor George Pernsteiner, "at the strongest demand for student enrollment in our history."

It would be nice if the system had the resources to deal with them, to have the classes and the support structure for those students. The $20 million for the universities that has slipped out of the governor's budget could make the difference. As Rep. Larry Galizio, D-Tigard, points out, "We don't want to be losing 1,000 slots at the very time demand is exploding."

We really don't.

And we don't want to cut classes to the point where it takes Oregon students longer to get through college, at the same time that Oregon families are making extraordinary sacrifices to get them there.

It has always been the Legislature's assumption, especially over the past two decades, that the universities can make up the difference with tuition increases, and there is indeed a projected increase of 9 percent — the latest in a long line. But while the University of Oregon and Oregon State University can probably absorb that and keep their market, the regional universities such as Eastern and Southern — the campuses that have capacity — might get belted by it. They need the flexibility to deal with their students.

And when students are facing yet another hefty tuition increase, they are at least entitled to know that their tuition money is being spent for their benefit — and not having interest on their hundreds of millions siphoned off for other state government purposes.

Everyone in state government is getting beaten up this year, and that includes higher education, which projects a 4.6 percent salary cut. But as Pernsteiner says, the system shouldn't have to make that cut twice.

There is also a projected cut of 25 percent in the chancellor's office, some time after the state consolidated activities there to save money. There are cuts to other programs connected to the higher education system, such as the statewide extension program. The list includes the Innovation Council and the Engineering and Technology Industry Council, programs where some state money leverages larger amounts of federal and private money, and where Oregon builds its next economy.

This fall, Oregon's state universities will deal with their highest demand in history, including a disproportionately large number of exactly the outstanding Oregon students we'll need when the recession ends, sent there by families whose financial outlook is even more uncertain than the state's.

None of them expect their treatment by Oregon to be lavish.

But it ought to be fair.

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