Researchers say Oregon’s public university funding model has a gender bias

By Meerah Powell (OPB)
Nov. 9, 2020 1:45 p.m.

A new study by researchers at Southern Oregon University alleges a gender bias in how the state of Oregon spends its higher education money.

The paper, titled “A Gender Analysis of Oregon’s Student Success and Completion Model” says there are distinct gender inequities in the formula Oregon uses to distribute state funding to its public universities. In general, it found that degrees typically completed by men are worth more in the state’s funding model, putting some universities at a disadvantage.


“Degree completions in different programs are not worth the same,” said Jacki Strenio, assistant professor of economics at SOU and one of the research paper’s authors.

“A completed degree in engineering would be worth more under the funding model than two degrees completed by a student in psychology,” Strenio said, “and that’s significant to note because engineering has more men students than women students, and psychology has more women than men students.”

The Student Success and Completion Model, or SSCM, is the formula Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission uses to decide how funding is split among the state’s seven public universities.

Prior to the SSCM, which was established in 2015, the state distributed funding to public universities solely based on how many students they were enrolling.

Instead of enrollment numbers, the SSCM focuses on three funding streams:

  • mission differentiation funding, “line item” funding for specific services, programs or general operations at universities;
  • activity-based funding based on the number of credit hours Oregon resident students complete;
  • and outcomes-based funding, which awards money based on degree completions by Oregon residents with different types of degrees receiving more “weight” in funding allocation.

The research paper authored by Strenio, two other SOU professors and a student, focuses on that last “outcomes-based” stream of funding, which makes up about 50% of total funding allocated by the state. The paper specifically focuses on bachelor’s degrees for Oregon residents.

Strenio said the types of degrees that are more heavily weighted are where the gender inequities lie. STEM degrees – degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, are favored in the state’s funding over degrees in liberal arts and humanities programs.

In 2018-2019, although the majority of bachelor’s degrees for Oregon residents were awarded to women – about 54% according to SOU’s research — women made up only about 33% of STEM bachelor’s degree recipients.

Because STEM degrees are more heavily-weighted in funding, particularly for degrees in areas like engineering, Strenio said, universities with degree programs in more women-dominated areas like the social sciences, liberal arts and humanities can be at a disadvantage financially.

Strenio said, that means universities like Southern Oregon University, where a large number of students earn degrees in women-dominated programs like social science and humanities, will receive less funding.

Strenio also notes that SOU does not have an engineering program, as is the same with some of Oregon’s other smaller public universities.

“When evaluating the funding model we think it’s important to look not only at isolated components, but also at its overall effect,” Jim Pinkard, director of postsecondary finance and capital with the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission, said in a statement.

For example, Pinkard said, even though SOU enrolls a somewhat greater than average population of female students, it also receives a somewhat greater than average amount of per-student state funding.


“Looking more broadly, we could not identify a substantial relationship between the amount of funding per-student the model generates for institutions and the proportion of female students the institution enrolls,” Pinkard said.

Still, the paper warns that a prioritization of STEM programs can lead to a disinvestment in less heavily-weighted, more women-dominated programs, arguing that can affect retention and completion of degrees for women-dominated disciplines.

The research paper also notes that smaller, regional Oregon universities have less of a financial “cushion” to help fill any gaps in state funding to combat any sort of disinvestment in programs, most likely causing any reduction in state funding to be offset by an increase in tuition for students.

The funding model does add weight to some specific women-dominated programs, though.

“It should be noted that the HECC’s funding model treats health care programs — where women constitute a majority of students — very similarly,” Pinkard said.

The funding model does give more weight to areas of study such as bilingual teaching and healthcare that are more typically pursued by women. But Strenio said, “when we look at absolute numbers, the STEM fields are much larger, and since we’re looking at total degrees awarded, that still can unintentionally privilege these men-dominated fields.”

Strenio said there has been an argument that prioritizing funding for STEM programs can enhance recruitment of women and other underserved students, but she said, previous research has not shown that to be the case. Strenio points to other factors that interfere with women entering male-dominated fields.

“I think there are gendered occupational trajectories that emerge because of much more rigid social norms and societal discrimination that women face going into these men-dominated fields,” she said.

Strenio said she and the other authors acknowledge the higher costs associated for universities offering STEM programs, like engineering, as one of the reasons for its extra cost-weight. But she said a major point of the research paper is that programs like engineering receive extra funding bonuses across all three of the SSCM’s funding streams, and there’s not explicit transparency on why.

“Certain STEM programs like engineering receive priority funding in the mission differentiation funding category, in addition the student credit hours are weighted heavier to reflect that higher cost of instruction in that activities-based funding, and then on top of that, they’re weighted more heavily in the outcomes-based funding stream,” Strenio said.

“What we’re advocating for is just transparency and perhaps some empirical evidence that these additional cost weights across all of the streams match the actual cost of instruction,” she said.

In the paper, Strenio and the other authors also encourage the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission to consider adding weighted bonuses for specific student populations.

The Student Success and Completion Model already adds more weight to degrees earned by certain populations such as underrepresented populations, low income students, rural students and veterans. The research paper suggests that the Higher Education Coordinating Commission consider adding bonuses for other students such as LGBTQ students, English language learners and students with disabilities.

“[That] could also kind of help level this playing field that we’re talking about,” Strenio said.

Strenio calls the report “a first step” in a dialogue between funding models and equity.

“Hopefully as the gender breakdown in different fields changes, it’s something that can be readdressed and revisited in the future,” she said. “But for now, it may seem like higher education funding in general benefits women since women earn the majority of bachelor’s degrees in Oregon, but since those bachelor’s degrees aren’t weighted equally under the funding model, it’s not necessarily the case.”

Although it was not the focus of the report, Strenio and the other researchers noted that along with a lack of gender diversity in STEM programs, there has also been a historic lack of racial and ethnic diversity.

Pinkard with the Higher Education Coordinating Commission said the agency looks forward to further consideration of the points raised by the SOU researchers.

The Higher Education Coordinating Commission is scheduled to meet this week in order to discuss staff recommendations for potential changes to the funding model. From there, the commission can choose to endorse those recommendations and draft rule changes for the Student Success and Completion Model with a public hearing early next year.