Column: Invest in higher ed

The good news for higher education in Oregon is that the state budget now under consideration by the Legislature in Salem increases financial support for the public university system by 7 percent.

That is good news, or least it's better news than the annual disinvestment that the Oregon University System has come to expect.

In a world with its head screwed on correctly, that increase itself would be increased substantially and passed without so much as an eye blink by our esteemed lawmakers.

That won't happen anytime soon, despite the very measurable positive impact advanced education has on individuals, the state economy and, therefore, the public services we're straining to provide.

Long-term vision is in short supply in Salem.

Still, any real increase is welcome news.

But it has to be understood in the context of the ongoing challenges that our state institutions face.

This week, three visitors to the editorial board of The Bulletin offered up some facts and figures that help define the challenges the OUS faces.

The visitors were Jay Kenton, vice chancellor, finance, of OUS; Di Saunders, director of communications, OUS; and Becky Johnson, vice president of Oregon State University and the leader of its Cascades Campus in Bend.

Among the many very interesting points they made were:

• Since the 1999-2001 biennium, OUS is receiving about $100 million less in state support each biennium.

• In the same time frame, OUS has grown by 34,000 students.

These new students tend to be more diverse, come from rural areas and have less in personal resources.

That means they require more in support services, which requires more money.

And they run up a lot of debt. Roughly 60 percent of OUS students carry some amount of student debt.

• Twenty years ago, state support underwrote about 70 percent of a student's costs of going to college; the student was responsible for about 30 percent.

Today, the numbers are reversed. The state is handling 30 percent; the student 70 percent.

That relegates Oregon to 44th in the country in per student funding.

• Oregon has a low cost for a degree.

Problem is, OUS loses money on in-state students. It takes about $13,000 in tuition costs to teach a student for a year. The student pays about $6,500 and the state kicks in about $3,500 on average, leaving a deficit of roughly $3,000.

• To make up the deficit, the universities are looking at out of state or out of country students, who pay substantially more in tuition. Those students now comprise about 45 percent of the University of Oregon student body and about 20 percent of Oregon State's.

• Students should pay attention to the debate over the Public Employee Retirement System. About $850 of what they pay each year to the university they attend goes to the retirement costs of the faculty, staff, administration, etc.

Even with recent reforms to PERS, that cost will increase to about $950 a year.

• OUS class sizes are large.

The faculty-to-student ratio at most state public universities is roughly 18-to-1. Oregon's is roughly 26- or 27-to-1.

These numbers could be depressing, except that our universities are, under great strain, offering excellent educations to their students.

What these numbers make you think about is what could be.

With more investment in our universities, which really are the linchpins of the state's future, Oregon's prospects in the long term would be brighter and brighter.

There are no easy answers in a state struggling over revenues, but we simply must find a way to invest.