Higher education gets higher priority

In recent years, Oregon, traditionally a high-tuition, low-loan state, has had among the nation’s lowest funding for higher education. Every year since 1991, the state has seen a continual disinvestment in funds – until now.

At this week’s legislative session, higher education was named a higher priority than in recent years, thanks in large part to the work of students across the state and organizations such as the Oregon Student Association, a student lobbying group present on nine of the state’s college campuses.

In a survey last June, students gauged where all of the state’s legislative candidates stood. Dissatisfied with higher education’s low priority, OSA took action in the fall with the Student Vote Coalition. Intending to have as many student voters as possible, OSA helped register more than 22,000 students statewide. Voter turnout among Oregon students was at its all-time highest during a non-presidential year.

“Students continued to rally and have a high presence in Salem,” said OSA Communications Director Courtney Sproule.

After talking with a lobbyist, students spent the winter orchestrating several events. The prescription campaign asked Gov. Kulongoski to “doctor” students’ “ailments” with giant prescription cards. Students Love Tuition Equity, a Valentine’s Day-themed campaign, called for all qualified Oregon high school students to be granted in-state tuition regardless of documentation status. Another was the recipe campaign, in which students filled out thousands of recipe cards with the necessary ingredients for a stronger Oregon.

In March, however, the Ways & Means Committee announced its budget, which slashed the initial funding recommended by Kulongoski by $15.4 million.

“The Ways & Means Committee has a bunch of subcommittees,” explained ASUO President Emily McLain, former State Affairs Coordinator for the ASUO. “We did most of our lobbying to the subcommittee on education, which gives its recommendations to the co-chairs, who ultimately come up with the final budget, which is voted on, agreed with, or disagreed with.”

The students continued to fight for their futures – hosting call-in days, writing letters, testifying at hearings in Salem, holding bake sales, and delivering giant piggy banks filled with cards to legislators asking them to “bank” on education.

“With a bachelor’s degree, it’s estimated that we will each contribute more than $61,000 in taxes in our lifetimes,” McLain said, pointing out that number is significantly higher than it would be without a college education. “It showed that it’s not really short-term, but that it’s good for the state in the long run.”

By the end of this legislative session, Oregon’s higher education will become a high priority, after the initial spending plan put it after nearly every other state service, including K-12 schools and state police.

“We really went from being last in line to the winners,” said ASUO, OSA and Campus Organizer Tom Hojem, who pointed out the ending budget was 18 percent higher than Kulongoski originally proposed. The state’s seven-school university system was awarded $868 million and its community colleges, $500,000.

“For the next biennium, it’ll be the biggest reinvestment in higher education in Oregon,” said Sproule, one of the many students who went to Salem Thursday for the governor’s official signing of the budget.

OSA’s list of legislative victories include keeping tuition increases at 3.4 percent, adoption of the Shared Responsibility Model (which works to close the affordability gap), funding for the Student Child Care Program, and more affordable textbooks.

“The students were constantly here in the building,” said State Sen. Vicki L. Walker. “Representatives from the OSA worked closely with legislation; it was really well done. In the past, we got an ‘F’ for access and affordability, but this session really changed that. It’s the best education budget in decades.”

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