Our View: New ideas needed to fund higher ed
A state's financial commitment to higher education says something about its aspirations — and right now Oregon appears to be striving for mediocrity.
Gov. Kate Brown's blueprint for the 2019-21 biennial budget had called for state funding for operations at public universities to stay stagnant, at $736 million. At that level, Oregon may not even be able to hang onto its current ranking — a dismal 46th — in state taxpayer support for higher education.
And with employee retirement and health care costs rising fast, a flat-funded budget actually would mean a decrease in money available for instructors, counselors and student services. It also would mean higher tuition, which puts a greater onus on students and parents to pay for a college education.
Brown's budget provided a starting point for the joint House and Senate Committee on Ways and Means, which is where the real budget work gets done. This month, lawmakers on that committee improved the picture just slightly — adding another $40.5 million to Brown's base budget.
This falls far short of what universities need just to stay even.
Oregon State University President Ed Ray made that point during an interview last month with the Pamplin Media Group editorial board. He urged the 2019 Legislature to "get focused on education."
Indeed, these budget proposals should prompt a concentrated legislative discussion about priorities and the spectrum of education, from K-12 through community colleges and universities. Brown proposed putting her money on K-12 schools, with a healthy increase. We don't disagree with improving funding for the K-12 system, but‚ if Oregon aspires to be a true economic success, education cannot end with high school.
Universities deserve better in the coming budget cycle, as do community colleges, which also are facing cutbacks under current budget proposals. Lawmakers should examine all options for improving funding for universities and colleges. The first question is whether the governor's priorities are the correct ones — whether higher education really should take a back seat to other budget categories.
These questions of budget scarcity and priorities are particularly perplexing at a time when Oregon has record tax revenues, due to a robust economy. The increased costs for the Public Employees Retirement System and for health care are eating away at revenue increases, leaving the state with perpetually tight budgets.
That doesn't mean, however, that it's impossible to be more strategic with the money available. In a state that depends heavily on income taxes to fund its services, investments in higher education pay off in the long run.
Conversely, the educational disinvestment that's occurred in Oregon over the past three decades is self-defeating. If fewer Oregonians have the post-high school skills needed for better-paying jobs, the state collects less in taxes and has less to spend on things like education.
If lawmakers agree higher education needs more, they should put universities and colleges front and center if any additional money becomes available, either through improved revenue forecasts or targeted tax increases.
Legislators and the governor also could consider policy changes that have the potential to relieve universities of state-mandated costs. For example, universities currently have no option but to participate in PERS and the public employee health plan. They potentially could save money if they weren't subject to that requirement.
University funding, of course, cannot be separated from the overall budget, and Brown has said she would increase funding for both universities and community colleges if the Legislature approves undefined tax increases totaling $1.9 billion. That amount is excessive, but legislators should look for a revenue/expense compromise that couples further PERS reform and other cost-containment measures with more moderate tax changes.
University presidents say they need $120 million in additional funding just to maintain current programs. Lawmakers ought to consider ways to save money and increase revenue to provide more support for higher education, and along the way prove that Oregon still has lofty ambitions for its economy and its future.