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Oregon's regional universities face tuition hikes to balance difficult budgets — starting at Western

Western Oregon University
Western Oregon University

Falling enrollment and financial challenges are plaguing Oregon's regional state universities. Western Oregon University is the first to announce a tuition increase for the next school year in an attempt to deal with those impacts.

WOU’s Board of Trustees voted Wednesday to approve tuition increases for undergraduate students. Southern Oregon University and Eastern Oregon UnIversity have plans to vote soon on tuition and fee increases, as well.

Western has felt the effects of the ongoing pandemic maybe more than any other public university in Oregon.

WOU saw the largest decrease in enrollment out of all of Oregon’s public universities since before the start of the pandemic — a more than 18% decrease in its total number of students from 2019 to this past fall, according to data from Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission.

Regardless of the pandemic, WOU has seen a decline in enrollment over roughly the past decade.

Western isn’t alone in its financial predicament, as other universities across the country, particularly Oregon’s smaller regional schools, face similar challenges.

Oregon’s other regional universities — Eastern Oregon University and Southern Oregon University also continue to face the financial difficulty created by the combination of declining enrollment and rising costs, according to a recent report from the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission.

The HECC noted that all of the regional universities made improvements since the extreme instability at the start of the pandemic, but that they’re still in challenging positions.

In comparison to before the pandemic, 2019, to this past fall, Eastern saw a roughly 8% decrease in enrollment according to data from the HECC. Southern experienced a more than 15% enrollment decline in the same time period.

“EOU’s financial position is potentially precarious and sensitive to enrollment changes,” the HECC said in its report examining financial conditions at the state’s public universities.

For SOU, “the need remains clear to continue to reengineer the institution to identify opportunities while preserving academic quality,” the HECC wrote.

In the same report, HECC noted WOU’s efforts to “right size” its institution.

Last year, Western announced staff and faculty layoffs and cuts to multiple programs in an effort to save costs.

The HECC said hopefully efforts like those, as well as the return to in-person learning and other activities, will help WOU’s finances.

“This is particularly important in a challenging fiscal environment and one where enrollment is expected to continue to decline,” the HECC wrote. “These efforts should be closely monitored and evaluated for their impact on the institution and its finances.”

At its Wednesday meeting, Western’s Board of Trustees approved tuition increases for both in-state and out-of-state undergraduate students for the next academic year.

In-state undergraduate students will see a 3.19% increase in tuition. That translates to $270 more dollars per year in tuition if a student is taking 15 credits per term for the three typical terms of the school year. In-state undergraduates will pay $8,730 annually starting next academic year — up from $8,460 currently.

Out-of-state undergraduate students will see a 2.9% tuition increase. That adds up to just more than $800 extra per year. Out-of-state undergraduates taking that same number of credits per term will pay $28,710 compared to $27,900 now.

Students will also see higher fees, including their health service fee and some dining and housing fees.

In-state and out-of-state graduate students at Western will not see any increase in tuition.

According to WOU board documents, interim president Jay Kenton said the tuition and fee increases will result in an estimated $830,000 of additional revenue. Kenton directed the board to reinvest $150,000 of that revenue toward expanding paid student jobs on campus.

Although SOU and EOU haven’t voted on tuition rates yet, both institutions are also considering increases, according to their individual board documents.

Southern is proposing a roughly 4% increase in tuition for in-state undergraduate students and a nearly 3.4% increase for out-of-state undergraduates.

Eastern is proposing a 4.9% increase for both in-state and out-of-state undergraduate students, according to board documents. That’s just under the 5% threshold that would need approval from the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission to move forward.

EOU did not raise tuition at all last year, out of concern for the financial stress on low-incoming students during the ongoing pandemic.

Practically all of Oregon’s public universities have focused on efforts to grow enrollment, particularly spurred by the effects of the pandemic. The only university in the state that saw more students last fall than in the fall of 2019 was Oregon State University, according to HECC data.

Western administrators have been particularly focused on attracting more students as the university’s enrollment decline had existed years before the pandemic began.

WOU interim president Kenton said the university will likely see a roughly $5.5 million budget deficit for the next fiscal year if Western sees the same number of students.

“Thus, we still need to keep our primary focus on enrollment as this is the means to get back to a balanced budget,” Kenton wrote in his report.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Meerah Powell is a general assignment and breaking news reporter for OPB. She previously worked as a news reporter and podcast producer for Eugene Weekly in her hometown of Eugene, Oregon. Along with writing and audio work, Meerah also has experience with photography and videography. She graduated from the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communication.