SALEM — Hunter Rowe sat in the senator’s chair for the duration of his 15-minute meeting in the state capitol. About halfway through, when state senator Lew Frederick (D-Portland) walked into his own office, Rowe stood to give him his chair, but both Frederick and Kevin Modica, the legislative aide who’d been leading the meeting until then, urged him to keep his seat.
As Frederick found another seat, the conversation continued. Rowe, a freshman political science and math major at the University of Oregon, eventually made an ask: That funding for higher education would be a high priority in the state’s budget if revenue projections turn out well.
“We don’t have the money here,” Frederick told Rowe and another UO student, an alumnus and two staff members sitting in the meeting. “We need to have you get out there and talk with people. We need a new system.”
The small group was part of a much larger event: UO Day at the Capitol, which brought 80 UO students, staff and alumni to the State Capitol in Salem to meet with legislators and lobby for increased funding for higher education.
The main ask is a $186 million increase for the Public University Support Fund, which funds all of the state’s public universities. The “bare minimum” increase UO is asking for, said Hans Bernard, assistant vice president for state affairs, is $120 million to that fund, which should keep in-state tuition increases below 5 percent.
The impact of state funding on student tuition was a prime focus of the day’s 36 meetings with legislators. Just the day before, the Tuition and Fee Advisory Board finalized a recommendation for resident tuition, including an option for an 11.06 percent increase to resident tuition in case the PUSF only receives $70 million in funding.
TFAB offered a range of possible recommendations, depending on state support for the PUSF.
Proposed tuition increase schedule published in TFAB’s May 10 memo to UO President Michael Schill, recommending a range of tuition increases based on state support to the PUSF. (TFAB/University of Oregon)
Rowe and the other advocates at the capitol began the day with an orientation, where UO lobbyists shared tips for telling personal stories to legislators and asking them to commit to supporting the increased funding. The morning also included a brief visit from Governor Kate Brown, who welcomed the group to the capitol and encouraged them to continue advocating.
“We want to make sure we are keeping tuition affordable, and that Oregon kids can go to Oregon universities,” Brown told the group before taking questions about public employee retirement funds and the status of efforts to pass the Student Success Act in spite of walkouts by Republican senators.
The other student in Senator Frederick’s office on Wednesday morning — who goes by Michelle and asked that her last name not be used for safety reasons — told the senator why she found it so important to be lobbying in Salem.
As a 16-year-old, Michelle, now a junior accounting major, moved out of her home and lived on her own. She was worried about what would happen after she left the support of K-12 schools but was fortunate enough to receive a merit scholarship to cover most of her tuition.
Still, as tuition increased during her time at UO, Michelle had to pick up two jobs on campus to cover her expenses.
She knew she was fortunate to receive her scholarship, as well as to be able to skip a day of work and school to lobby legislators in Salem. Michelle said she felt that she had to be in Salem to advocate for other students she knew couldn’t afford to take the day to tell their stories.
Senator Frederick’s response to Michelle and Rowe’s group of advocates was not uncommon: If the state is going to prioritize funding higher education, funding for something else is going to lose priority. He asked the group what they thought should be deprioritized — and no one had the answer.
In an interview after the meeting, Michelle said that the senator’s response that someone needs to come up with a better plan for funding higher education was frustrating. The only person who can solve the problem, she said, will likely need a college degree to solve it.
“If the solution is going to come out of anyone, it’s going to be us, in college.”