With enrollment declining in the pandemic, no increases proposed in budget for Oregon’s community colleges, public universities

By Meerah Powell (OPB)
Dec. 3, 2020 12:23 a.m. Updated: Dec. 3, 2020 1:42 a.m.

Neither Oregon’s public universities nor the state’s community colleges would get a funding increase under the budget Gov. Kate Brown proposed this week. That has different implications for both types of institutions, as community colleges have seen an extreme fall in enrollment compared to public universities.

“I struggled making really difficult choices and tough decisions. I didn’t have enough resources to build the budget I wanted, particularly for higher education,” Brown said Tuesday. “Both the universities and the community colleges were left at the legislatively approved budget from the last biennium.”


Brown’s proposed budget puts community colleges about $61 million shy of what is needed to maintain their current service level, the Oregon Community College Association said Wednesday.

Three candidates are in the running for Portland Community College president.

Portland Community College saw an enrollment decline in fall 2020, just like every other community college system in Oregon.

Bryan M. Vance / OPB

In her proposed budget released Tuesday, Brown allocated $640.9 million for Oregon community colleges for the next biennium, the same amount those institutions received for the 2019-21 budget cycle. The association said in a statement that it needs $702 million to keep tuition increases at 3.5% or below on average throughout the state — a goal that college officials had set to keep costs affordable for students.

Community college leaders say the flat funding for their campuses could interfere with an economic rebound.

“[A]s Oregon’s workforce training experts, community colleges are critical to the state’s economic and family recovery,” Dr. Cam Preus, Executive Director of the Oregon Community College Association, said in a statement. “Adequate funding to support the colleges is vital to reviving the state’s workforce.”

Preus acknowledged that Brown’s budget was looking to balance a lot considering the coronavirus pandemic and Oregon’s recovery from major wildfires.

Brown’s proposed budget actually included an increase of nearly 10% over last biennium’s approved budget to the state policy-setting agency for postsecondary education, the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, or HECC. But most of that increase went toward specific programs or offices, not to college and university operations themselves.

Some of Brown’s proposed increase to the HECC went toward programs and offices including the Office of Student Access and Completion, which administers a range of financial aid programs to Oregonians, such as the Oregon Opportunity Grant, and the Oregon Youth Employment Program, which provides Oregon youth with paid work experience.

The governor’s proposed budget also funds health insurance for part-time faculty teaching at multiple higher education institutions and supports construction projects at various public universities and community colleges.

Like direct state funding to Oregon’s 17 community colleges, Oregon’s public universities also saw no increase in funding.

Brown’s proposed budget offers about $836 million to public universities — the same amount universities received from the last biennial budget.


The Oregon Council of Presidents – the coalition of Oregon’s public university presidents – offered a more positive outlook on the unchanged budget, calling out Brown’s “continued commitment” to Oregon students.

“We thank Gov. Brown for mitigating cuts to the public university support fund, sustaining key statewide programs, and championing an important increased investment in state financial aid for low income Oregonians through the Oregon Opportunity Grant,” the council wrote in a statement.

The council said universities will continue to seek federal funding. Like supporters of community colleges, the universities’ advocacy focuses on the economy.

“Higher education is fundamental to closing the income gap and creating new opportunities for prosperity in communities in every corner of Oregon,” said Tom Insko, president of Eastern Oregon University and chair of the Oregon Council of Presidents, in a statement. “Investing in Oregon’s university students is critical to emerging from the pandemic stronger and more resilient.”

The different reception from Oregon public universities and community colleges may be because of the vastly different effects the coronavirus pandemic has had on enrollment in higher education across the state.

While public universities had an enrollment dip of 3.8% over the last year, Oregon community colleges saw 23% fewer students, according to data from the HECC. While a few public universities saw modest enrollment increases, all community colleges saw decreases.

Both universities and community colleges rely on tuition-paying students for a chunk of their operating budget, so when enrollment drops, it has a direct effect on that funding stream.

The HECC distributes state funding to public universities and community colleges using separate funding models, but both rely at least in part, on how many students enroll.

The Student Success and Completion Model for public universities bases funding on student credit hours, number of earned degrees and spending for specific services.

The model the HECC uses to fund community colleges, the Community College Support Fund formula, focuses mostly on enrollment – with extra funding to help smaller colleges.

The Oregon Community College Association also pointed out the specific work that community colleges do that often fall outside of that of a public university, including stepping in to help during the summer’s catastrophic wildfires and the ongoing pandemic

“When the destructive wildfires further damaged the state’s communities, community colleges continued to adjust to support local families and industries, including providing emergency shelters and producing food through agriculture programs,” The OCCA said in a statement Wednesday. “During the state’s economic downturn and increased workload on healthcare and emergency responders, community colleges trained frontline workers to help ease the load.”

Brown acknowledged those shifts, saying in a press conference Tuesday she was disappointed she could not recommend an increase in direct state funding for institutions.

“I am hoping we can work with the legislature to find more resources for our universities and our community colleges,” Brown said.

“Our community colleges are our workhorses,” Brown said. “They are working hard to make sure that students in communities very small and even very large have access to the skills they need to provide for their families, and our universities literally open up the world for our students.”

The governor’s proposed budget is a starting point. It’s up to state lawmakers to approve a budget, a task they’ll start when they convene in January.