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State Commission Approves Tuition Increases At 3 Oregon Universities

<p>People walk across the University of Oregon campus on a rainy March day in 2015.</p>

Alan Sylvestre

People walk across the University of Oregon campus on a rainy March day in 2015.

Substantial tuition increases at three of Oregon’s public universities have been approved by the Higher Education Coordinating Commission.

Barring more state funding, tuition will increase by 10% for students at Southern Oregon University, 6.91% at University of Oregon and 6% at the Oregon Institute of Technology.

Staff representatives and students from each institution made their case in front of the state commission Thursday.

The tuition increases are much lower than initial proposals. Universities reined them in after legislators amended a budget bill to allocate $100 million to public universities, instead of the $40.5 million in the governor's proposed budget. The budget is not final.

Set to present Thursday, officials at Portland State University canceled their appearance after the university's Board of Trustees lowered next year’s tuition hike from 11% to 4.97%.

Universities need permission from the Higher Education Coordinating Commission for tuition increases more than 5%. Leadership at Oregon’s three other public universities stayed under that ceiling.

OIT, SOU and UO say the need for tuition hikes is due to increased salary and retirement costs.

University of Oregon says a decrease in international students has resulted in millions of dollars in lost revenue. Jamie Moffitt, UO’s vice president for finance and administration, said officials predict a recurring $34 million gap next year if there were no tuition increases or cuts to programs.

“This is my eighth year doing this; that is the largest number I’ve seen for our campus,” Moffitt said. “We have not faced a situation quite this dire.”

Overall, commissioners commended SOU and OIT university presentations and efforts to seek student input in the tuition setting process.

Between commissioners, there was little discussion on whether to approve the tuition increases.

But there was concern for schools continuing to increase tuition without successful strategies to increase enrollment.

In discussion about Southern Oregon University, Commissioner Sandy Rowe pressed the university to make changes quickly.

SOU President Linda Schott said the university is taking enrollment seriously.

“We’re looking for new markets,” Schott said. “We’re getting more available students ready to come to us, we’re reaching out to adult learners, we’re trying to serve underserved populations, and that is the strategy.”

Votes for tuition increases at OIT and SOU were unanimous among the commission, but there were two "no" votes for University of Oregon’s 6.91% increase.

Commissioner Terry Cross was one of them.

“U of O is in a reactive mode and I‘m not hearing a larger strategy,” Cross said. “It seems like the past strategy was international students, and to get out of that, it's going to take something more."

He said the optics around UO’s financial plan were "not good."

“I’m very concerned that what we’re hearing is too little, too late,” Cross said.

Schott and leaders at other universities asked for more state funding to support programs and faculty at their universities.

“I think it will require a rethinking of how at least the technical and regional universities are funded in this state,” Schott said.

In statements earlier this week, House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said the Legislature has done all it can to get more money for higher education.

"We’ve been really clear, we’ve gotten as much as we think we can into their system,” Kotek said.

Kotek expressed understanding for regional universities increasing tuition, but singled out one of Oregon’s largest institutions.

“I don’t know why University of Oregon can’t get to 5%, I don’t understand that at all,” Kotek said earlier this week.

Students and university administration at OIT and SOU presented to the HECC together, signaling agreement on tuition increase requests. But a University of Oregon student asked the HECC to reject the university’s tuition increase request.

“I would also call upon our university president to commit to working with students to implement whatever financial transparency mechanisms the state needs to put in place,” said senior Imani Dorsey, outgoing vice president of Associated Students of the University of Oregon. “Until then, I think the U of O needs to do better, and I encourage you all to really reject this increase."

The universities pledged to increase financial aid and remissions to help low-income students deal with the increase.

“All of us believe this is the best route forward, and none of us like it,” said SOU president Schott.

These increases are subject to change if the state allocates more or less funding to higher education. Each university has a sliding schedule based on state funding.

The Joint Committee on Ways and Means has scheduled a work session for Friday morning on the bill to increase funding for public universities.

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Elizabeth Miller is a JPR content partner from Oregon Public Broadcasting. Elizabeth is an Ohio native and a graduate of Baldwin Wallace University.