The good, the bad and the laughable

Three bills in the Oregon Legislature — two passed this week and one on the verge of approval — illustrate Oregon lawmakers' conflicted attitude toward higher education.

On Tuesday, the House gave final approval to Senate Bill 253, which declares it the mission of Oregon's education system to make sure 40 percent of adult Oregonians hold a bachelor's degree by 2025. The bill also sets targets of 40 percent of adults with an associate degree and 20 percent with a high school diploma or the equivalent. Those playing along at home will note the three numbers add up to 100 percent — a laudable goal, to be sure.

On Wednesday, the same chamber adopted the higher education budget, which slashed funding to the state's seven public universities by 11 percent — the third consecutive decrease in the university system's biennial allocation.

Yet to be approved but expected to pass is a third measure, Senate Bill 242, which will give the universities much-needed autonomy from legislative raids on tuition dollars. That bill should help the universities more in the long run than the other two.

There is nothing wrong with wanting more Oregonians to earn four-year degrees. What is hard to take is the hypocrisy inherent in setting a goal the state cannot hope to achieve without adequate financial support.

The higher education budget is simply embarrassing. Yes, every state agency and service suffered cuts this session because of the state's dire financial condition. But higher education funding has been steadily eroding for years now. The campuses have had to make up the difference with tuition increases, and they have already done so again this year, anticipating the meager allocation they would get out of Salem.

For some mysterious reason, higher education doesn't appear to have an organized constituency in the Legislature.

Every lawmaker will insist he or she supports K-12 education, and eloquently defend the need to support it. Likewise, every legislator will agree that creating jobs should be a top priority.

Employers say they need well-educated workers, and an educated work force is a primary consideration for companies looking to move into the state or to expand. And yet the higher education system continues to get the short end of the stick when it comes to state support.

University officials appear to have become resigned to this reality, but this year they came to the Legislature with a new request, embodied in SB 242: stop treating Oregon universities like any other state agency, subject to the whims of lawmakers looking for dollars they can divert to other state functions.

Universities collect tuition from students and their parents, but they don't have complete control of that money, so they can't plan farther ahead than the next biennial budget for fear the Legislature will sweep up surplus tuition dollars to spend on prisons or human services. That's not fair to the campuses or to the students, who expect their tuition payments to go toward their education.

SB 242 will end that practice, and should give the universities some much-needed certainty about their finances, allowing them to plan five years and more into the future.

Lawmakers should commit themselves to strengthening higher education, not bleeding it dry. Setting lofty goals for the state's universities without providing the means to achieve them just adds insult to injury.

Share This Story