Student Bill Aims to Contain Oregon’s Surging College Tuition

(Photo: Malerapaso / Getty Images)(Photo: Malerapaso / Getty Images)

College accessibility and affordability remain top priorities for students and faculty members across the US. But a 2017 Institute for Higher Education Policy study concluded that 95 to 99 percent of 2,000 colleges across the nation remain unaffordable for most low-income and first-generation college students, especially students of color. However, in Oregon, a new bill could provide a model of accountability for the rest of the US.

Introduced in this legislative session, Oregon’s House Bill 4141 proposes that university governing boards create Tuition Advisory Councils whose purpose would be to “make recommendations regarding tuition and mandatory enrollment fees.” The bill allows historically underserved students, university faculty members and student government to have more input in the tuition and fee rate-setting that boards of trustees make. The bill requires two representatives from each of the following: university administration, faculty, student body and students from historically underserved populations to serve on university advisory councils. The councils would be tasked with writing recommendation to the university president on tuition and mandatory fee policies for the trustees to adopt. In effect, HB 4141 makes university governing boards more accountable by including student and faculty input.

That accountability is long overdue. Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission (HECC), the agency that oversees the state’s postsecondary institutions, reports that over a span of nearly two decades, public university appropriations have plunged from $877 million to $778 million. During the same period, enrollment increased from about 97,000 to 116,000 students. According to a 2015 HECC university evaluation report, cuts to higher education funding have caused Portland State University’s (PSU) resident undergraduate tuition and fee to rise 63.8 percent over 10 years. University of Oregon (UO) students, too, have been impacted by this funding crisis. Similarly, the 2016 HECC report concluded that “resident undergraduate tuition and fees at the University of Oregon increased 80.3 percent in the last 10 years, including increases of 3.7 percent and 4.6 percent in 2015-16 and 2016-17 respectively.”

Although Gov. Kate Brown signed a budget boosting higher education funding by $70 million for the 2017-19 biennium, universities have increased tuition anyway, with minimum input from students and faculty members. The PSU trustees, for example, voted to approve a 5.45 percent increase in tuition. This tuition increase means that a full-time undergraduate student must pay an additional $383 in tuition and fees each academic year. UO’s trustees increased in-state tuition by 6.6 percent for the 2017-18 school year. For UO full-time undergraduate students, a 6.6 percent increase translated into an additional $810 in tuition and fees, according to the Eugene Register-Guard.

HB 4141 was introduced after it became evident that prior legislation that revamped higher education governance had left out key constituencies from financial decision-making. That law, created in 2013’s SB 270 established independent, rather than centralized, governance at Oregon’s seven public four-year colleges. At the time, concern was raised over the structure of these independent boards. Though the bill mandated that a single representative of faculty and one speaking for students be appointed to each board, the composition guaranteed that these voices would have no real power in such determinations as tuition setting.

University employees and students testified against SB 270, including Marc Nisenfeld of Service Employees International Union Local 503, who argued that the bill “concentrated too much decision-making power into the hands of the governing boards with minimal opportunity to keep tuition and administrative expenses from increasing.”

HB 4141, on the other hand, aims to increase accountability of university boards of trustees by establishing structures and processes to ensure the viability of college accessibility and affordability, key to the state’s higher education mission.