Investing in human capital

State Treasurer Ted Wheeler has joined the chorus of reformers bent on improving higher education in Oregon, but he is focusing on the people who, ultimately, are supposed to benefit from post-secondary studies: the students.

The state's largest universities — the University of Oregon, Portland State and Oregon State — got a bill from the 2013 Legislature allowing them to create their own governing boards. The idea is that independent decision-making and large-scale fundraising could free those campuses from micromanagement by the Legislature and help keep tuition from continuing to soar.

Wheeler's approach is less sweeping, but it could have a big impact on college affordability by tapping the state's bonding authority to expand Oregon Opportunity Grants to students pursuing college or vocational training.

Wheeler notes a new study by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce that examines where job growth will occur through 2020 and what level of education will be required to qualify for those jobs in each state. In Oregon, 70 percent of jobs will require at least some education beyond high school, above the national average of 65 percent. That's because much of Oregon's job growth is expected to be in technical fields.

Lawmakers responded positively to Wheeler's proposal, but insisted that voters should be asked to sign off on it.

The bill that passed will ask voters in November 2014 whether state bonds should be sold to expand the money available to help low- and middle-income Oregon students pay for postsecondary education.

The state regularly issues bonds, essentially borrowing against future revenue. The proceeds usually pay for capital construction projects — buildings, roads, bridges and the like — but there is no reason why the money can't be invested in human capital instead.

The Oregon Opportunity program has been in effect for decades, but suffered cuts along with the rest of state government during the recession. At the same time, demand soared as unemployed people returned to college or delayed entering the workforce to increase their education.

Now, only two of every 10 qualified students receive an Oregon Opportunity Grant.

If voters agree to use bonds to finance college grants, that would not mean higher taxes. But the state's capacity to issue bonds is limited by law. Every dollar borrowed to fund college grants would be a dollar not available for other purposes — such as new buildings on state college campuses.

For our part, we endorse the idea of investing those dollars not in more bricks and mortar, but in human potential.

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