Higher Ed's Future

Jeff Alworth

In Monday's Oregonian, Bill Graves detailed the effort by the state's university heads to kill off the much-maligned Oregon University System. This is a pretty big deal because the interests of the larger and smaller universities aren't always aligned--and it speaks to the level of distaste the individual schools have with the current system.

Public universities are in a crisis. Two decades ago, the state spent $4,884 dollars a student in unadjusted dollars. Today they spend $4,760. Adjusted for inflation, the per-pupil support has gone from $4,884 down to $2,786. Or, as Graves reports:

In Oregon, the erosion is driving state and university leaders to look for a change. Adjusting for inflation, state funding for the university system dropped 16 percent over the two decades ending in 2009 while enrollment increased by 27 percent. Twenty years ago, Oregon college students shouldered about 30 percent of the cost of their education; now their tuition covers about 70 percent of the cost.

Yet despite this massive drop in state financial support, state control through the OUS remains aggressive--and costly. The universities now wish to appeal to the Legislature, asking to be cut free. They have all signed letters of support in favor of PSU President Wim Wiewel's white paper.

The universities are still discussing a proposal for implementation, but agree that it's unworkable to continue on as state agencies. They would effectively have the same freedom of community colleges, with "control over tuition, personnel, health benefits, purchasing, bonding and other operations."

They hope to have a proposal for the legislature finalized by July. Discuss.

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    If they could operate with the same degree of professionalism as the CC's do, I say go for it. The couple of classes I took at Chemeketa CC demonstrated to me the most efficiently run operation I have ever witnessed.

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    For what it's worth, I had the misfortune of being on the bargaining team during the last round of negotiations between PSU's faculty union and PSU. It was terrible in part because PSU couldn't really negotiate in good faith. There was literally a guy from OUS down the hall, and we had to take regular breaks so the University could go discuss offers with him. Yet OUS wouldn't sit at the table.

    Many who have had to deal with OUS over the years have ended up feeling as I do: it is secretive, capricious, and motivated by hidden agendas. I doubt few people would shed a tear if the legislature hacks off its head.

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    Who owns them if they are not state controlled institutions? So does this mean that the investment that my grandparents, my parents, and my wife and I have made in these institutions of higher education are to be turned over to the corporate world? (I'm a third generation Oregonian.) When I enrolled as a freshmen at the U of O in 1966, tuition was $100 a term, and a college education was affordable for nearly every young person who qualified. I went on to get my B.A. and M.A. at the U. of O. and have had a professional career of over 30 years. I'm not ready to turn over that generational investment to the multinational corporate world and I don't think other Oregon parents and grandparents who have paid for this educational infrastructure for their children and grandchildren are ready either.

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      While I share your concern.

      There are a number of governance models, including the OHSU Public Corporation and the University of California system, which could be adapted to meet needs of the universities which are not turning over the universities to "the multinational corporate world".

      Cribbing from the white paper Jeff linked too, the University of California (UC) model is a constitutionally-mandated fourth branch of government, the UC system issues its own bonds, sets its own tuition, controls its own purchasing, contracting, and treasury functions and receives its state funding in the form of a block grant. The system can also appeal to the state to issue additional bonds on its behalf. A President and Board of Regents officially govern the system, but the Chancellors of each campus are typically given wide latitude to run their schools.

      An alternative model being discussed is a hybrid that incorporates benefits of both the UC system and the OHSU model. Instead of becoming a constitutionally autonomous system like the UC system, under this approach OUS would be given the authority to create one or more public corporations with independent governing boards similar to OHSU. The OUS board would operate as a coordinating board that would work with each of the individual boards to ensure state standards and goals were established and met. The new system would have all the authority OHSU enjoys, plus the right to go directly to voters for additional funding and back to the state for state-issued bonds.

      A further variation of the hybrid would convert OUS to a free-standing constitutional entity like the UC system and would establish a funding floor and, possibly, a funding model in the constitution. The system would receive its budget as a block grant. All other authorities would be the same as for the statutory version of the hybrid. While this approach would provide more stability and funding certainty moving forward, it also could prove more politically challenging to achieve than the statutory version.

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        Exciting stuff but like a feisty old woman once said, "where's the beef?"

        I think between covering the first two years of college and some more dollars for smaller classes, the OUS could do some amazing things with about 1/2 bill. more annually. If we can get there, I'll be so happy I may train myself to do a back flip. Hope springs eternal. Plus, a fine toothed combing of the organizational structure and budgets could be wonderfully beneficial too. I just don't want the proposals Kitzhaber has to take a back seat to rearranging deck chairs. Students pay more than 8 times what tuition was at the UO 30 years ago. If that is not embarrassing, I don't know what is.

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      Bill, "own" is an odd word to use. Public universities are funded in part by the state, and some spending decisions are made at the state level, but there are many levels of control. (Deans and departments have huge latitude over curriculum, for example.)

      I don't think anyone is looking to turn them over to the corporate world. By following the community college model, they could appeal directly to voters for support, and this would give them an additional public revenue source they don't currently have. As it stands, something like just 15% of the revenue comes from the state, so major donors already exercise large control.

      Moving to Wiewel's model wouldn't turn public universities private. It is designed to do the opposite.

      (Though it's worth noting that the student associations aren't convinced it will keep tuitions low--nor am I, for that matter.)

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      Oh, I should also add that tuition raises get decided largely at the campus level already--though the state has veto power.

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      Bill, I don't understand your reply. These institutions remain "state" in that they charge state tuition to residents.

      However, the reality is that the state legislature has been starving these schools for two decades. Your proud investment now ranks below 100 in the top schools in the country, an embarrassment for Oregon.

      Becoming a non-profit is a LOT different than "turning us over to corporations."

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        If they become private non-profit, they become dependent on corporate funding for their existence and their accountability to the citizens of Oregon who have built those institutions becomes non-existent. Despite the decline in public funding in recent decades, my life long taxes, those of my parents and grandparents built the physical plant and other infrastructure. Turning it all over to corporate dominance doesn't sit right with me Newcomers to the state, who are only too happy to leave Oregon at the first challenge, like yourself, may not appreciate this, especially if you are busy promoting Reed University.

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    Oregon when you include every dollar universities actually really get and not just the general funds budget funds higher ed well above the national average.So enough of this bunk that public universities are in crisis.

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    Matthew doesn't seem to know that the state's investment in Oregon's public universities has declined 44% over the last 15 years. Oregon is ranked 46th in the country in per pupil funding of public college students.

    This is the first time in Oregon's history that the next generation of Oregonians will be less educated than their parents.

    The best thing the legislature could do is to get out of the state universitie's business. Tuition would go down and Oregon will get a highly educated workforce again.

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      Funding is indeed a serious issue, but some of the rhetoric which you are using (albeit that is the framing universities themselves are putting forward) is a little biased. State funding has "declined" 40 odd percent as a percentage of total annual operating revenue. Why is this potentially misleading rhetoric?

      If actual state dollar funding is basically the same year over year, and operating costs/non-state revenue doubles, the state funding didn't "decline" by 50%, which is how the numbers are being presented.

      I am open to hearing, and sympathetic to, the arguments being made by the universities, but I also caution against misleading rhetoric to sell the push for new governance/funding models.

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        Mitchell, there are a number of ways you're mistaken. Even in the most literal sense, funding is way down. As I pointed out in the post, per-pupil spending, NOT adjusted for inflation, has declined a hundred bucks. If you want to do an apples-to-apples comparison, you have to do it per pupil, not total. It wouldn't mean anything to ignore the fact that enrollment is up by 40,000 kids.

        But I think ignoring inflation is just as bad. Forget about operating costs. Even looking at total expenditures, things have gotten far worse. Put it another way: a person making $20,000 in '89 and one making that figure now do not "make the same"--any more than a person in 1889 making $20,000 and one now make the same. It would be grossly misleading to sell those two figures as the same--which is why economists always adjust dollars for inflation.

        As I point out in the post, inflation-adjusted, per-pupil spending declined from $4,884 to $2,786. Those are basic figures, and don't take into account all the other costs that have risen within higher ed over the same 20 years. (Don't get me started on Baumol's cost disease!)

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          Jeff, I am not mistaken and your spinning of rhetoric and numbers only underscores my point.

          For example, if I (as the state) am giving $100 to cover education, and two students are enrolled, and five years later, I increase my funding to $200 to cover education but there are now five students being enrolled, the funding didn't go down, but rather didn't cover the increase in enrollment to keep the per/student dollar ratio stable.

          Funding is NOT down but has actually increased. Has it kept pace with the increase in number of enrollments? No. Has it kept pace with inflation? I would need to crunch the actual numbers but I suspect not. But my point is that funding has not gone down, but rather hasn't gone up enough. The fact that you yourself cite the per student spending and increased enrollment by 40k over 20 years shows exactly that.

          SHould we be investing more in education (not just higher education but also k-12)? Absolutely.

          Should we consider changing the policies and modifying the structures of the higher education as outlined by the white paper? Perhaps, and I tend to lean that direction given the revenue hamstrung state government.

          But spinning with misleading rhetoric and biased skewing of data doesn't help at all, and actually poisons the discussion.

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            Actually, there's not a word in my answer that's "spin." It's all fact. The only question still afloat is how we characterize change. If, as you believe, we may use only one variable and should ignore all others, then indeed I acquiesce. That's not how I figure it, though. Nor, I argue, is it how most people do.

            I guess my question is: what's the point in using your definition? It certainly obscures far more in the discussion than it reveals. When public policy is being debated, that seems a bad place to start.

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              Because it improperly gives the impression that we have been reducing funding for education which is not accurate. We haven't properly kept pace with the vastly increased enrollment, demands on the OUS system, etc.

              Saying that we have been reducing funding for higher education is simply misleading and will set us up for being legitimately tagged by the "cut government spending" crowd for misrepresenting the facts.

              The issue is not that we have reduced State spending on higher-ed (though depending on how you slice the numbers the current biennium budget can be put forward as a reduction, it is in essence flat in total dollars spent vs. '07-'09). But rather we have failed to properly fund it given the growth of higher-education and the need to adequately invest in it.

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    Paulie once again you are basing your arguments on the general funds budget numbers not the millions of dollars higher all funds budget figures.the total funds investment sorry to burst your bubble Paulie has not declined 44%.When you include every dollar Paulie that universities really actually get meaning the all funds budget number universities get which you dont Oregon is much much higher than 46th in the nation in per pupil spending.the funding has been very stable and generous in Oregon for years on higher ed.Paulie what you dont take into account is how much pers sucks up the higher ed money.enough of this liberal bunk that students will be less educated.If the funding has declined so much like you claim Paulie then why do we still have record enrollment in higher ed in Oregon then?When you include all funds budget numbers not the general funds which the pro Blue Oregon crowd never does in their arguments the funding has been stable and consistent for years in higher ed and not declined half as bad as the scare tactics Blue Oregon crowd would have you believe.

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      This can be taken many ways but this comment reminds me of a saying, " a little knowledge is dangerous." I take the saying to mean more knowledge is less dangerous. But carry on, we will clean up after you leave as always.

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    when are you liberals going to get a clue and for once really be honest about how much money the greedy state govt and schools really get?when are you going to realize that there is someone intelligent like myself who dont fall for the same old tired liberal bunk about how poorly funded schools and state govt are?why dont you folks tell the real truth for once about govt spending and school funding?there is no budget shortfall the all funds budget went up 6 billion from 48 to 54 billion and why dont any of you Blue Oregon folks ever mention that like i do?

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      Oregon's public higher education opportunities/challenges are way more complex than I can articulate in a comment section. The level and depth of qualitative and qualitative data and analysis is just too great. Sound bits are a disservice in a way but I will concede are a necessary nuisance.

      For now you will or will not just have to trust the boots on the ground, and the experts. People spend their entire lives just trying to understand ONE campus. The OUS is seven excluding OHSU (which has one of the higher tuition levels ever recorded and not enough in-state students attending IMHO).

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    Ah, I see my "favorite" commenter from The Outlook has made it to Blue Oregon.

    I have to admit I'd like to see big changes in our university system. Besides the fact that they're underfunded, they are far from meeting the needs of their customers - the student.

    It takes them years to add new programs or change current ones to meet what is needed today. I'm currently working on an Associates degree that I'm having a hard time finding a Bachelors degree for in Oregon. The entire Computer Information Systems area is in hot demand (some of the top jobs fall under this), yet you can't get the degrees needed here in Oregon.

    I'll likely end up piecing together classes from MHCC and base classes at a local university and then have to get my actual degree online through a university from another state.

    We have thousands of students - and hundreds of employers - who need these degree programs, yet we're told it'll take 5 years for a school to implement them. At the same time we're doing it at the community college level in just a few terms. I just started classes in September, and already we're working on major changes to the degree so that students learn what they need.

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    I think I am Mr. Alworth's newest member of the Jeff Alworth Fan Club. Honest, smart, direct, and wise words get me all faklempt. What can I say? My father used to say "we drown the dumb ones" referring to us, his five boys. I love free speech. This is a nice discussion. Oregon has got a long way to go but there is a cure for the malaise in Oregon public higher education; speaking freely is just what the Dr. ordered.

    Full discloser, the last time I ran for public office in college I had to run as a write-in for student body president. Only the core team stood tall, everyone else underestimated us and we ended up taking the election in a landslide and starting PSU's recycling program, among other accomplishments. I was not raised to be a quitter is what I am saying so take all my advice on the chances of success on the ballot for public higher education in Oregon through those optics. I don't care if it takes 40 years. This has to be done; students are suffering and it does not have to be that way. Tuition at the UO is more than 8x it was 30 years ago and those numbers are adjusted. That is draconian and horrible public policy no matter what other numbers you can come up with to try to justify it. Go ahead and try, make my evening...

    Go Kitzhaber! He's talking about helping out students by eliminating the tuition cost of the first two years of community college or university. Going to school costs much more than tuition alone mind you but it is an earnest step toward the future.

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