Let's make higher education more accessible and affordable

By State Treasurer Ted Wheeler

Oregon has a reputation as a leader, as an innovator. That reputation is justly earned.

The bottle bill, our land-use system, and most recently our healthcare transformation required us to think broadly, boldly, and creatively to meet Oregon’s needs. We all understand that wishful thinking can’t solve pressing problems – but smart reforms can.

Today, it is time to embrace our innovative heritage and apply it to making higher education and job training more accessible and affordable for all Oregonians.

We have the opportunity to do something now - we can pass the Oregon Opportunity Initiative in this legislative session.

The ever-increasing cost of higher education to Oregon students has now reached crisis proportions. At the same time, Oregon continues to struggle with income inequality and increasing poverty. Recent statistics show that we have not been able to turn the tide.

The price of higher education to students and their families is going up in Oregon more than 2.5 times faster than income growth for middle wage earners. This is unacceptable.

During a recent 8-year period ending in 2012, the price paid by Oregon students (fees plus tuition) increased 50 percent, swamping household income growth. Student debt also reached alarming levels, growing by 21 percent in just four years, contributing to a national student debt load that now exceeds $1 trillion.

Yet many would-be Oregon success stories are facing severe headwinds because of the embarrassingly low level of state aid for needy families. Only two out of every 10 eligible students who apply for Oregon Opportunity Grants actually receive one.

That means eight of 10 receive nothing.

The poor level of support undercuts our state’s touted and ambitious 40-40-20 goals, which say more Oregonians will obtain higher education. Are we serious about including all Oregonians – including lower- and middle-income Oregonians – in these goals? I think Oregonians strongly support the belief that everyone deserves a chance at education.

For the lucky few who win the state aid lottery, they only receive about $2,000, and there is no guarantee of support in future years. No wonder Oregon ranks a paltry 45th in the nation in terms of student aid for higher education.

Oregon can and must do better.

Part of the answer: Ensure that all Oregonians can develop the expertise needed to find family-wage careers in a complex, global economy. Higher education and vocational/technical training are a key part of that preparation.

If we are truly serious about addressing the issues of higher education costs to students - and access to technical/vocational training - then it is time to stop talking about the problem and take steps to solve it.

The Opportunity Initiative will make higher education more accessible and affordable to Oregonians through the creation of a permanent, growing and ultimately self-sustaining fund dedicated to student aid.

It also has a key goal of increasing the availability and quality of technical/vocational training programs in Oregon. This acknowledges the reality that not everyone wants or needs to attend college or a university program – but everyone needs to have the basic skills necessary to earn a decent wage in an economy that will increasingly demand skills and training.

In short, the Oregon Opportunity Initiative will bring higher education and job training within reach for more Oregonians and help us maintain and grow the highly skilled workforce we need to attract and retain the employers our future prosperity depends on.

The plan, which was developed in concert with legislators, business and education leaders, will use investment earnings from the new fund to boost Oregon’s student-aid program, the Opportunity Grant. There are several means being discussed by the legislature to seed the fund, including the possibility of issuing general obligation bonds to take advantage of historically low interest rates.

This would be squarely in the proud Oregon tradition of crafting innovations to make our state a better place – ideas that go beyond wishful thinking in the face of challenges.

Instead of thinking of only the short term, the Oregon Opportunity Initiative will buy permanence. It’s the difference between paying rent versus paying a mortgage and building equity in a house.

Here’s where the Opportunity Initiative pays off: As the State’s contributions drop off, the fund itself and the investment earnings that go towards student assistance will continue to grow.

I am asking the Legislature to move forward with the Opportunity Initiative’s constitutional structure, Senate Joint Resolution 1. This asks Oregonians to vote on creating the fund, and gives it the protection of the Constitution so it can only be used for post-secondary student assistance and job training. Lawmakers also would need to authorize the bonds, and dedicate some money to the fund.

Let’s think about our future, and the kind of prosperity we want for our children. Let’s think long term instead of short term. Let’s stop renting tuition assistance and buy a house full of student aid that will nurture future generations of Oregonians

You can learn more about the Oregon Opportunity Initiative and how you can help at BuildingOregonsFuture.org. I want to hear from you. Please contact your legislator as well and tell them you support the effort.

Wishful thinking won’t begin to address the higher education obstacles in our state. The Opportunity Initiative will. And the time to act is now.

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