Give Oregonians Credit for Supporting Public Higher Education

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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.

It's been said "you got to spend money to make money". In higher education, they measure their "products" in decades and by some studies the return on invest is ten to one. That is worth the collective state investment but increasingly, the investment burden required for a higher education has been left to the student. Between 1979 and 2009, tuition alone at the University of Oregon was well up over eight times what it was in 1979, adjusted for inflation. Why? Largely because Salem stopped paying for all of our public universities. There is speculation of privatizing the University of Oregon and some may argue that they have been at it for a while now already. I’m not just talking selling the name of a building or raising private monies to endow chairperson-ships in departments; I’m taking the University of Oregon operating in a fully privatized model ala Willamette University which currently charges $38,800 in tuition alone per, year. Is this the right direction to be going in?

In a recent piece in the Oregonian Steve Duin wrote of the University of Oregon that "[UO President] Lariviere has campaigned for increased autonomy in a state with a diminished interest in supporting higher education. He has emulated [Phil] Knight's unapologetic commitment to run the university like a business."

I love the UO but this bothered me. First, it is state government that has abandoned higher education, not Oregonians and I just want to make that distinction. As a concerned citizen I want to blame Salem, warcraft on the ballot, and some misguided elected officials that have shirked their responsibility to higher education, not we the people of this fine state. We just haven't been asked the right question(s). The vast amount of fundraising done to supplement the anemic state support Salem has provided over the last 30+ years and the consistent in-state enrollment growth the UO has experienced over the years too, shows Oregonians are still committed to higher education, even if state government is not.

Second, the universities are run “like business[es]” and, as a consequence, the next bubble to burst behind the tech and housing bubbles will be the student loan system if we don't act, and soon. Autonomy from the state on the road to privatization is not the answer for the UO. President Lariviere is wrong. A well-crafted ballot measure (or series of ballot measures) aimed at making the most affordable, accessible and excellent institutions of higher learning in the world, is/are the answer(s). And I bet the majority of the electorate would agree.

On the ballot, we've been tricked by the electioneers like Kevin Mannix to build more and more prisons to house pot dealers, rather than labs to house genius and scientific experimentation. We listen to the constant stream of the media detailing the awful underbelly of human existence, and some judge our world accordingly, faked by the press into believing around every corner is an armed criminal ready to take from us that which is most precious. We the people, Oregonians, never have given up on our highest aspirations for the common good or that of our children. We’ve just been fed garbage.

The likes of Bill Sizemore would have us believe the government is the beast that needs to be starved in the Biblical sense,but no, in our constitutional republic we are the government, however prickly and messy it may be. Let’s not privatize the UO because we have systemic problems with our state financial system. Let’s go to the ballot and fix what is wrong with the system rather than put in jeopardy our state treasures, like the UO. The UO existed long before Nike and it will long after, not the other way around. Don't privatize our historical common goods for the sake of circumstantial, self-imposed constraints cloaked in the name of efficiency and faith in market forces.

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    Tim, I agree with you on the Mannix/Sizemore problems. But I think the problems with public higher education in Oregon are deeper and more fundamental than you indicate. Major changes are needed. The underlying costs of the existing system, not just tuition, are out of control, certainly now exceeding any ability of the public to finance expanded enrollment.

    I did react to President Lariviere’s pay raises for 1,300 professors and administrative workers with the following thoughts on my own blog (here):

    “Third, I’m for making significant changes in public higher education over time. Let several of our premier institution go entirely private (while retaining some public ownership rights to land and buildings). Shift all state funding to Oregon student scholarships, good at any in-state or any approved online institution. Develop expanded funding of research at Oregon institutions.

    "Fourth, either let the U of O go more private (and assume more risk for its own future in the face of a probable bubble in higher ed) or censure (or fire) U of O President Lariviere and get costs under control. Do not muddle along with a public higher education system without cost controls.”

    I’d also recommend implementing Tim Nesbitt’s proposal to make opportunity grants (financial aid) available to students studying online at the Western Governors University (which runs ads here on BlueOregon). More here.

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      Thanks for your input Mr. Porter! :-)

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      Inflation is caused by too many dollars chasing too few resources.

      I found an interesting piece concerning one contributing factor to higher education inflation:

      If true Tim, your arguments for more funding for education may be contributing to the cost spike.

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        The issues are more complex than is let on in this article Geoff. Get your wife to invite me to a Bible study, and I will try to explain it further. :-) Mr. Porter and Geoff: Still for the record, I'd fire the UO President if I were making decisions on behalf of the state. I'd frame the notification of termination of his contract actually, and put it on my wall.

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          To be more constructive, the University of Oregon needs to take the longer view and not give raises to lobbyists when tuition is up over 800% over 30 years for example. I should better express myself by saying what high expectations for reform I have for the Oregon Education Investment Board of the OUS, from top to bottom, and not simply express my disappointment with the way one president has chosen to conduct business. And, it's not just the president's fault, the way things are. Nonetheless, I stand by my comment that the University of Oregon needs new leadership.

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        That piece is mis-asumptioned and a bit out of date.

        1) Under the recent Student Loan Reform Act, loans are now hybridized. The Department of Education takes all the loans, and then assigns them into random blocks which private loaners compete over. They get loan payments, students get lower rates and no discrimination. Wins all around.

        2) As schools more and more adopt business-like attributes, they inevitably adopt the bad policies. According to this article, median President salary is $300k. Profitable sections of schools (like football) are increasingly funded, while education programs struggle. And like in primary schools, we are running into the same fundamental issues... Teachers with way too many students. Teachers having to pay for materials out of their own pockets. More and more work being forced upon fewer and fewer positions. Decaying buildings and infrastructure. Textbooks increasingly being written in impractical ways for increasing costs.

        Of course, these shortcomings are passed on to the students. While there are some schools doing smart things with limited funds; leveraging numbers for healthcare/dental, making alliances with teaching hospitals and medical schools for cheaper healthcare. Arrangements with public transportation, and so on. But the fact is that schools don't have the money they need. Tuitions are rising. And at the same time, this very needed service is recording profits and executive salaries are rising. This is a disconnect.

        At a time where people are most in need of training or retraining, schools are more expensive then ever, and unemployment is at the highest for people who have brand-new degrees. When there are people actually arguing that taking college savings and instead investing it while working at the Wal-Mart for more money... This doesn't strike you as fundamentally wrong??

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      The problem is I believe technically only the chancellor can "fire" a president. The board is a bit bottle-necked that way. Nonetheless, if George Pernstiner is unwilling to do the job then I believe the board should find him a replacement too.

      To be fair, I would not just stop at the presidents if I were doing the firing; whole departments would disappear -- like from the dean if students on down.

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    The federal student loan program is the next credit bubble to burst. Last year almost $100 billion was loaned out and the unpaid national balance is around $1 trillion. Once in default, the loans are all backed by the federal government through the US Department of Education. It is the only loan program I am aware of that basically funnels huge, unfunded amounts to people that currently are incapable of paying back the principle.

    These loan balances can not be discharge via bankruptcy or disability. They are basically there until death. Tim is correct, but understates the problem. According to D of E own reports, the FY 2009 default rate had risen to a new high of 8.8% (FY 07 rate 7%). This growing debt issue will be the next shoe to drop and will make the Solyndra scandal seem a tempest in a tea pot (no pun intended).

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      There's a reason why the best gift you can give your children, if possible, is loan-free college.

      I did loans, but that was back in the day when interest rates were reasonable (I had one of the last 4% loans as well as a 7% loan) and tuition was cheap. And you had 90 days after graduation to find a job.

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        California managed with tuition-free state collages until (then) Governor Regan disbanded them. Subsidizing colleges is a pretty darn good idea, in my opinion. High-quality education systems attract employers. lower tuition give more people opportunities. Education is (still) associated with higher incomes, lower crime rates, lower birth rates, more entrepreneurship... This is a positive feedback loop that I just can't figure out why it is so hard for state governments to accept. If you want a better state, invest in education. Period.

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