When the Legislature meets in January, Oregon Democrats will certainly give a high priority to financing public schools. But it would be tragic if this long overdue change in public school finance priorities overshadowed the serious fiscal problems in Oregon's public colleges and universities.
Oregon Higher Education has never recovered from the recession of the 1980s when the Legislature sharply reduced the amount of money it appropriated per student and encouraged the Board of Higher Education to raise tuition to make up the difference. Encouraged by lobbyists for the handful of the state's private colleges, this tuition increase was to be followed by a policy of "high tuition-high aid." Predictably, the "high aid" never materialized, except in the form of student loans.
Over the last two decades, undergraduate tuition at Oregon's four-year universities has more than tripled to about $6,000. Oregon's average undergraduate student graduates $18,000 in debt. That's $3,000 in debt higher than the national average of $15,000 for students at public four-year colleges and universities. This reliance on loans masked a large shift in the burden of supporting Oregon high education.
As recently as the early 1970s, student tuition paid about 25 percent of the cost of undergraduate instruction. Taxpayers put up the other 75 percent with the understanding that former students would pay higher income taxes as they earned more money than they would have made without their degree. Today, student tuition pays about 75 of undergraduate instruction. Taxpayers' contribution has declined to about 25 percent. An ungrateful governing generation is unwilling to give as good as it got.
High tuition is having a predictable effect. Enrollment in Oregon's regional universities, including Eastern, is actually dropping. That is not from lack of demand. It is because potential students are priced out of the market. Stagnating enrollment threatens the solvency of the state's regional universities and requires the Legislature's urgent attention.
No one has seriously studied the consequences of a generation deeply in debt just as it starts its adult life, but there is a growing awareness of a problem. USA Today just ran a series of articles with headlines like, "Young people struggle to deal with kiss of debt," "Young & In Debt" and "High cost of college, soaring housing costs stack deck." The largest of these debts is student loans, followed by credit card debt accumulated while they are in college. This crushing debt burden represents a major shift in the burden of financing post-high school education.
Oregon Republicans and Democrats will spend a lot of time talking about economic development and jobs in January. Economic development usually means subsidies for industries that are already here and tax exemptions for companies that would come anyway.
Today's legislators should recall that the educational attainment of Oregon workforce was one of the prime underpinnings of Oregon's post-World War II prosperity.
No single act of government will improve Oregon's economic climate as much as adequately financing its public schools, colleges and universities. It is time to end decades of pretending that we are spending enough, or even too much, on education.