Gov. Brown, Sens. Wyden and Merkley and Rep. DeFazio rally student support on campus

Governor Kate Brown speaks to a crowd assembled at the EMU Amphitheater Monday morning to encourage last-minute voting. (Becca Robbins/Emerald)

University of Oregon President Michael Schill and other high-ranking members at UO addressed concerns surrounding tuition increases at a board of trustees meeting on Tuesday in wake of Gov. Kate Brown’s recently released state budget proposal.

The proposal does not guarantee the $120 million state budget increase that collegiate administrators said would keep tuition rises under 5 percent for the next two years. At the meeting, UO Vice President/CFO Jamie Moffitt said about $10.7 million of the total increase would have been allocated to the university.

Brown’s proposal hopes to raise money for the requested budget increase through a $2 billion state legislature revenue package for education. The exact details for the education package are unclear; however, Brown proposed that it would be partially funded by new tax initiatives, such as increasing taxes on cigarettes, hospitals and health insurance plans.  

Schill and others present at the meeting were skeptical that the money from the investment package would be achieved.

“Even if the best result comes about, which is the investment budget of $120 million and a tuition increase under 5 percent, we would still have a challenging budget for next year, largely because we'd begin the year in deficit from this year carried over,” Schill said.

The governor’s budget proposal keeps the Public University Operations and Student Support fund at $736.9 million, unchanged from the 2017-19 budget. The fund accounts for all of the support that public colleges receive from the state. Keeping the fund stagnant does not account for rates of inflation and increasing retirement expenses, and thus decreases the actual amount that UO receives from the state compared to the 2017-19 budget.

UO officials couldn’t confirm exactly what the tuition increase might be if Brown’s proposal is approved.

“It’s too early to speculate,” said UO spokeswoman Molly Blancett. “There’s a process for setting tuition and we will allow the Tuition and Fee Advisory Board to follow it.”

UO’s board of trustees is expected to set tuition in March 2019 after receiving a recommendation from Schill, who receives counsel from the provost and the Tuition and Fee Advisory Board. TFAB comprises faculty, staff and students.

For this tuition cycle, TFAB will offer two proposals to Schill and the board of trustees, said Moffitt, who is also co-chair of TFAB. One proposal will operate under the assumption that the investment package is achieved and the other will budget accounting for the stagnant budget.

“The governor has asked all institutions to move forward and set tuition as if the investment budget is put forward,” Moffitt said. “If that's the direction that we're headed, it would be helpful to have some clear communication from the governor around that directive.”

This also presents some complication to the process. If the board sets a tuition increase assuming the higher state funding under the investment budget, but that budget falls through, the board will need to come back and approve a new tuition rate in July, Moffitt told the board.

“[We will be] dealing with a lot of uncertainty and complexity in the coming month,” Moffitt said. “The reality is, it's going to be one of those years where there's a lot of balls in the air.”

ASUO President Maria Gallegos-Chacon said that she is “very disappointed” with the governor’s budget and called the investment proposal a “joke.” Gallegos-Chacon also said she plans to put pressure on the state to find funding for higher education through active lobbying efforts.

“I really would be encouraging you all to be advocating,” Gallegos-Chacon said to the board. “I think it would be really beneficial if the students and the board are all working for the same thing."

The seven presidents of Oregon’s public universities released a joint statement last week expressing disappointment in Brown’s decision to not include the increase in her proposal.

“The Governor’s budget provides a stark choice for the legislature and the people of Oregon: either force universities to make cuts to academic and student support programs while also raising tuition by double-digits or make college more affordable and accessible through balanced revenue reform and meaningful cost control in areas like retirement and health care,” the statement read.

Other state universities believe that tuition could rise much higher than the optimistic 5 percent increase that the additional funding would’ve guaranteed.

“In the case of Eastern Oregon University, barring some sort of significant change, we’re talking a tuition increase of between 10 to 15 percent,” Eastern Oregon University President Tom Insko told The Oregonian/OregonLive last week.

According to UO’s Blancett, the reasoning behind the university’s desire to keep tuition rises under 5 percent is twofold: Keeping costs low for students is a priority, and raising tuition over 5 percent can be an uphill process.

UO and other universities across the state have received increased scrutiny from students for frequent tuition rises over the last several years. With increasing costs, students continue to face heavier financial burdens on the path to earning a four-year bachelor’s degree.

Outside of sustaining low tuition rises to decrease costs for students, UO can raise tuition with more ease if the increase stays under 5 percent. The board of trustees can increase tuition under 5 percent without state approval, but UO is required to receive an approval from the Higher Education Coordinating Commission for any tuition hikes more than that mark.

As past years show, gaining the HECC’s approval can be a challenging process. When UO requested a 10.6 percent tuition increase in 2017, Brown wrote a letter to the HECC advising the commission to not approve any increases over 5 percent. The HECC initially denied the increase, but UO petitioned the decision and the request was later later approved upon a revote.

In addition to general state funding, which supports university instruction, research, public services and operation, Brown’s investment package would add an additional $121.5 million for the Oregon Opportunity Grant, a need-based scholarship for Oregon students. Without the legislature package, the financial aid program’s budget would be $152 million, only a slight increase from the 2017-19 budget.  

“Even as campuses continue to find cost efficiencies wherever possible, without additional resources for public universities, students will face onerous double-digit tuition hikes and cuts to the types of services and aid they need to reduce debt, graduate, and find a job,” the presidents’ joint statement said. “This is not an acceptable outcome for Oregon.”

The Emerald’s Zack Demars contributed reporting to this story. 

Editor in Chief - Daily Emerald

Zach was the 2018-19 Editor in Chief of the Daily Emerald newsroom. In his spare time, he enjoys watching the Portland Trail Blazers games.