In an era where state funding for education continues to dip, higher education institutions across Oregon have had to raise tuition and find other revenue sources to stay afloat, according to a discussion panel in Bend.

Oregon State University-Cascades Vice President Becky Johnson, Central Oregon Community College President Shirley Metcalf and Damon Runberg, an economist from the Oregon Employment Department who focuses on counties east of the Cascades, discussed the successes and difficulties surrounding modern higher education Tuesday afternoon at a City Club of Central Oregon forum.

Twenty years ago, two-thirds of public colleges’ costs were funded by the state, while one-third came from tuition, Runberg said. Today, those funding sources have flipped, he said.

“After doing this research, I had a lot more grace for what they’re having to go through,” Runberg said. “It’s a tough situation.”

Because of a decrease in state funding, both of Central Oregon’s colleges have raised tuition.

Johnson said OSU decided in April to increase tuition by 4.4% at its Bend campus, which she said still won’t be enough to keep up with rising costs for employee pensions and health insurance.

Metcalf said tuition for in-district students will rise by 7% for next school year, and when increased fees are added, the total cost-per-credit will be about 11% higher than this year. However, she added that the increase will be lessened if the Legislature provides more than expected.

Rising tuition costs throughout Oregon’s colleges and universities has created a problem for families. Runberg said the average annual wage in Oregon has risen 12.8% since 2005, but community college tuition and fees have jumped 40.9%. Tuition and fees at four-year universities rose even higher over that time span: 50.7%.

According to Runberg, despite the fact that higher-­education enrollment typically drops when the economy is strong, enrollment at four-year institutions has stayed flat since the recession ended. And that’s all because of two schools with quickly rising enrollment: Oregon Institute of Technology and OSU, in both its Corvallis and Cascades campuses.

Out-of-state student enrollment has gone up by 5,700 since 2011 statewide, he said.

“Nonresident students pay significantly more to attend these universities, sometimes three times as much,” Runberg said. “Being able to increase our market to nonresidents has helped these universities stay afloat.”

One thing that hasn’t helped to slow rising tuition is the increase of online courses, Metcalf and Johnson said. They said this was partially because, in order to have quality online classes, serious money needed to be pumped into them to train teachers and purchase the appropriate technology.

“I think we thought online was the magic pill, but we’re finding out more and more that if we’re going to develop better online courses … the college is going to need to invest,” Metcalf said.

Johnson added that if enough students choose online courses over traditional, in-person classes, the need for new buildings would decrease, saving the university money in facility costs. But OSU hasn’t reached that point yet.

Both administrators still praised their schools’ online offerings, saying they’ve worked hard to ensure that online students receive the same quality of education and support services as students who attend on-campus classes.

Johnson and Metcalf also bragged about their schools’ program offerings. Metcalf brought up COCC’s partnerships with local builders Kirby Nagelhout Construction and Sunwest Builders: Each has had its CEO teach courses, as well as a software apprenticeship program.

Johnson said OSU-Cascades has struck a balance between making sure its graduates found a successful career after graduation, but also providing a well-rounded liberal arts education.

“There’s this pressure that a lot of students and families feel right now that we should all be providing training programs that lead directly to a job,” she said. “That’s kind of at odds where universities have been, and I think we need to meet somewhere in the middle.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7854, jhogan@bendbulletin.com

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