Editorial: University money discussions should be public


Oregon’s universities are struggling with a three-pronged problem: State financial support has been falling, rising tuition is causing unsupportable student debt, and the governor’s 40-40-20 plan demands that more students earn degrees.

Seeking solutions, the Oregon University System is doing some hypothetical analysis of possible financial approaches, according to a report in The Register-Guard newspaper in Eugene. Unfortunately, they’re doing it in secret.

OUS staff attorney Ryan Hagemann told the newspaper that state law allows the secret approach. But even if it’s not illegal, such secrecy can be counterproductive.

Higher education is front and center in the public consciousness, with citizens vitally interested on a personal as well as taxpayer level. The recession has changed the conversation about student debt at the same time that jobs require more education. As taxpayers, we confront a vast array of demands for state resources.

OUS Chancellor George Pern-steiner asked university presidents to estimate the effects of certain limits, such as set tuition rates, enrollment levels and how much money would come from the state. The results were discussed privately in late December by the finance committee of the state Board of Higher Education, according to the Register-Guard. Pernsteiner refused to make them public, telling the newspaper he would release them only “if I were assured that it wouldn’t be misconstrued and misinterpreted.” In other words: never.

We think understanding is enhanced by more information, not less. Clearly and fully laying out the choices OUS is facing can help taxpayers and voters be realistic about the choices that must be made.

The state has already made a big investment in the governor’s education plan, which sets the goal by 2025 of having 40 percent of Oregonians earn a bachelor’s degree, 40 percent an associate or other post-secondary certificate, and 20 percent a high school diploma. We’re a long way from those goals, and legislators will soon be making tough decisions about where to spend scarce state dollars.

The hypothetical scenarios prepared for the education board likely give context and meaning to otherwise confusing calculations. The public debate will be smarter if we get to see them.