Lillian Huebner’s experience at the University of Oregon has not gone exactly how they had planned. Huebner arrived on campus with two full suitcases. Unlike most UO freshmen, Huebner’s parents weren’t there to help them move in.
Huebner came to Eugene from Stockton, Missouri, a small town of fewer than 2,000 as of the 2010 census. Their parents are conservative farmers who did not attend college. Huebner’s parents stopped supporting them financially once Huebner moved to Oregon.
Huebner identifies as agender and asexual and said that they feel more accepted than ever in Eugene.
“I realized I hadn’t been angry in months,” Huebner said. “‘I just remember being back home in Missouri, every day I was angry about something.”
This year, Huebner could not afford to register for classes in the fall and had to leave the dorms, making them homeless. Huebner faces about $15,600 of debt from student loans and cannot afford to return home to Missouri.
Huebner now lives out of the two suitcases they brought from Missouri and sleeps on a friend’s floor on a makeshift bed of blankets and couch cushions. They look forward to buying a mattress after saving up some money from their new job as a Safeway courtesy clerk.
Last week, the board of trustees voted to raise tuition by 3.8 percent for residents and 3.7 for nonresidents, making student bills even harder to pay. Throughout the decision-making process, students raised their voices in protest, but to no avail. Except for last year, tuition has been steadily rising.
Huebner isn’t the only UO student affected by debt. Fifty percent of the 2014 undergraduate class had borrowed student loans with an average loan debt of $24,508.
According to Director of Financial Aid and Scholarships Jim Brooks, it is a “hard conversation” when a student can no longer afford to continue their education. Brooks says that non-resident students like Huebner are the minority among those considered high-need.
“Our costs are high enough that high-need students from out of state don’t tend to come here,” Brooks said.
These costs, while ultimately decided by the university’s board of trustees, begin with the tuition and fees advisory board, a group of administrators, faculty and students who provide a recommendation to the president and provost.
The president’s office then passes the recommendation to the the board of trustees. The latest recommendation, which the board approved and goes into effect for the 2015-2016 academic year, is a tuition increase of 3.8 percent for resident students, 3.7 percent for non-residents and an increase of 3.2 percent for mandatory fees.
Tuition board co-chair Jamie Moffitt said accessibility was considered as the group prepared its recommendations.
“There was concern that we need to keep this absolutely as low as possible while still being fiscally responsible about the institution and making sure that there are enough resources to make payroll and continue forward next year,” Moffitt said.
The board has credited the tuition raise to factors such as continued disinvestment by the state as well as mandatory increases in healthcare and retirement costs for its employees.
ASUO President Beatriz Gutierrez was one of many students who were disappointed with the decision. She says the university should have either frozen tuition rates or approved a decrease.
“I’m really invested in increasing accessibility of higher education and making sure a tuition increase doesn’t happen is one of the ways we can make sure that higher education is accessible,” Gutierrez said.
James Kress, a graduate student on the tuition board, felt that the recommendations were necessary. He said that students who disagreed with the increase should try to work with the administration in lobbying the state instead of protesting and criticizing administrators.
“The adversarial position really isn’t helpful to this process,” Kress said. “The university and the students really need to work more together.”
According to Judith Leichner, a member of both the tuition board and League of Educators and Students Slashing Tuition, students have tried to do just that.
“We’re trying to find solutions and we want to work with them as good as we can, but the students need to be taken seriously,” Lechner said
The final decision to increase tuition fell to the board of trustees during a meeting on March 5. Members of LESS-T, the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation and the Student Labor Action Project brought signs with slogans such as, “Don’t make us keep beating the dead horse at Johnson Hall” and “Animal House is satire, the real UO is a nightmare.”
Huebner was one of many students who stepped up to the microphone during public comment.
“There are human beings that your decision will affect today,” Huebner said. “We’re not just numbers that you can plug so neatly into your budget calculator.”
ASUO State Affairs Commissioner Joaquin Ramos criticized the university’s values, saying the school is “kicking people out of an institution that is supposed to help people better themselves.”
“You are taking people like me, you’re taking our ideas, you’re taking our perceptions, you’re taking our knowledge and saying that’s not valued at this university,” Ramos said. “What’s valued is how much you can pay.”
Ultimately, the board passed the resolution to raise tuition, which was followed by a student protest that forced a recess.
“I just hope that people understand that none of these decisions were taken lightly,” Moffitt said.
Both the administration and the students agree that the focus now is Salem, where students can try to get more investment from the state to lower tuition.
“I want to continue working with students, encouraging them and empowering them to make their voices heard,” Lechner said. “I think that’s the most important thing that this campus needs.”
Huebner hopes to eventually finish their degree in anthropology, and has their sights set on graduate school. They recently found a job, are steadily building back their savings and try to stay optimistic.
“I don’t feel as desperate now because I have 300-something dollars in the bank,” they said.
For Huebner, that’s enough for now.
Follow Francesca Fontana on Twitter @francescamarief