Bold leadership on higher ed from Ted Wheeler

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By Tim Young of Portland, Oregon. Tim is a former student body president at Portland State and a former member of the Oregon State Board of Higher Education. Tim is a University of Oregon '03, '05 graduate.

In a speech to the City Club of Portland, state Treasurer Ted Wheeler recently called for the creation of a fund in 2014, through the debt capacity of the state, to dedicate public monies to the Oregon Opportunity Grant, a need based aid program for college students while at the same time “overhauling” the program. The fund as proposed would be matched, dollar for dollar, by private donations through the strong fundraising operations of all our public universities totalling $500 million dollars split between the state debt capacity and private donations. It would be a unprecedented effort where all the universities would be raising money for a common goal. Sounds exciting.

$500 million dollars can generate a substantial amount of interest that would be used to support bending the cost curve for our neediest students, while preserving the principal investment. This means the endowment would exist in perpetuity, always being there, always providing for Oregon students who want to better themselves through education.

This is the kind of bold, keen on the issues kind of leadership that makes for future success for the state. Focusing our public monies on making more affordable the educations’ of the future workforce, leaders, innovators, entrepreneurs and citizens of this great state is a loan I am willing to support Oregon takes out, because the return on investment is so good. Education saves money in the long run. People are less likely to need public assistance and get tied up in the judicial system if they have a college degree, and of course there is the matter of lifetime earning potential. It increases for college graduates.

This idea, as opposed to Mr. Phil Knight’s and the University of Oregon’s idea of setting up an endowment to fund the UO operating budget, would directly benefit students by making school more affordable. Of course students would be able to choose to go to any one of our seven public universities in the system and beyond using the Oregon Opportunity Grant, if expanded. If one thinks broadly about education this presents a political question of school choice, common to the k-12 debate, and and a deeper financial question of what is best for the state? That is, where should Mr. Knight and others invest in their legacies?

I would argue administrative pay raises at the UO, and UO independence from the state, should take a back seat to making college more affordable to students and Nike and Mr. Knight should take that to heart, and so should governor John Kitzhaber, the legislature and ultimately the citizens of Oregon and go beyond a $500 million dollar endowment for students. There is great need and great need demands great action. Adjusted for inflation, since 1979 tuition alone at the UO it up well over 840%. That is mostly because the state has backed out of paying for the enterprise for a number of reasons, none of them good.

There are three numbers that really matter when running a university in my opinion: how much are you paying your faculty, how much are you charging your students and how much money is being brought in for research. Ted’s proposal would address one of those numbers in a potentially dramatic way.

Investments in education are an accepted standard for long-term economic recovery, world-wide. The idea of setting up an endowment for Oregon H.S. graduates to attend any one of our public universities or beyond will positively impact our economy and future and the empirical evidence backs me up; we just have to be smart enough to enact it and in a big way and by that I mean not settling for $500 million dollars or so, but saving up over decades (if it takes that long) for a state-wide endowment to help college students pay for their education that totals in the BILLIONS, and can never be touched, so that the interest generated by the fund would exist forever and dramatically help Oregon families.

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