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First person: PSU's dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Marvin Kaiser

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Sunday, October 01, 2006

{safe_alt_text}An investment lesson

Look to Colorado to see what impact Measure 48 could have on Oregon’s higher education.

By Marvin Kaiser

Over the past decade I have watched public higher education, a key ingredient to the successful future of our state, fall victim to disinvestment. And now Oregon faces yet another crossroads — the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), on the ballot in November as Measure 48. It seeks to limit state spending to the percentage increase of population growth, plus inflation. As we enter the political debate over TABOR, an understanding of its implications for higher education is our shared responsibility.

Let me begin with a picture of higher education in Oregon. One view is of hope and accomplishment. In 2006 alone, Oregon University System (OUS) institutions served nearly 80,000 students. This is in addition to the nearly 86,000 students served in community colleges and another 33,000 in Oregon’s private colleges. In 2005, OUS institutions received more than $280 million in grants and contracts, mostly from federal agencies, for cutting-edge research, creative work and outreach, an amount nearly equal to what OUS annually gets in state support. OUS universities, with an annual payroll of more than $746 million, is one of the state’s major business enterprises. Oregon universities have entered into partnered initiatives in support of economic development through Manufacturing 21, ONAMI, ETIC, and the PSU Business Accelerator, among others. At an institutional level, OHSU continues to be among Portland’s largest employers. In 2005, Portland State University’s economic impact on the region was estimated at more than $1 billion.

But while highly productive and efficient, OUS institutions are in a precarious state. At the most basic level, the state is failing to invest in higher education. Oregon ranks 46th in the United States in its funding per student at public colleges and universities. To compensate for this disinvestment in higher education, students now pay two-thirds of the cost of their education; 10 years ago they paid about one-third. Oregon received in 2002 and 2004 an “F” in overall college affordability from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, and ranked 46th in the country in the ability of families to pay the cost of a college education. Faculty salaries on six of the seven OUS campuses rank last among their respective peer institutions. Investment in faculty is the key to a developing a major competitive edge in research activity and grant support that flows into our institutions.

As an academic, I look to lessons learned to frame the present debate: our neighbors in Colorado. Colorado adopted its TABOR in 1992 and voted in 2005 to suspend it for five years. What happened to higher education between 1992 and 2005 is variously described by the Bell Policy Center of Denver as “a state of crisis” to a system “at the breaking point.” The center found, among others things, that:

  • Colorado’s state general fund appropriations for higher education reached its lowest level in 20 years — a decrease of 21.3% over four years.

  • In 2004-2005, Colorado suffered the largest decrease in general fund appropriations for higher ed in the nation.

  • Colorado ranks 48th in the nation in state tax funds devoted to higher education per $1,000 of personal income — the lowest level of state investment in over 40 years.

  • In the past two years, funding for need-based grant aid programs that serve the vast majority of low-income students in Colorado has been cut by 13%, reducing funding for almost 10,000 students.

  • Since 2003, the University of Colorado-Boulder has closed six academic departments and has lost more than 280 faculty and staff. Colorado State University over the last two years lost 54 faculty positions because of budget cuts.

Why should we care what happened in Colorado? One might argue that times are tight and we cannot afford the luxury of adequate support for most public services, including higher education. But the evidence raises questions about this conclusion. Seattle and the Silicon Valley make explicit the connection between a region’s economic health and a vital higher education system that produces an educated and creative citizenry.

Oregon has a proud heritage of taking on challenges and opportunities. This heritage has set us apart. Being 46th in state support, having an “F” in affordability and being last in faculty salaries is an affront to that heritage.

If Oregon has a stake in a creative and knowledge-based world, we must invest in an educated, creative class that is nurtured by robust higher-education institutions. The informed choices we make now will determine our future.  Will we invest or not?

Marvin Kaiser is dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of sociology at Portland State University.

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