Community colleges and public universities could gain the ability to merge, under a bill Oregon lawmakers are considering. But legislators and higher education officials say the details in what that would look like still need to be ironed out.
Senate President Peter Courtney introduced Senate Bill 1 during this current legislative session, and lawmakers discussed it during a public hearing Monday. Courtney had introduced a similar bill back in the 2019 session, though it died before receiving a floor vote.
“It creates a clear path from community college education to a four-year degree,” Courtney said Monday. “The bill will create an administration for these new entities — one president instead of two, one provost instead of two, one human resources department, one legal department. ... The two institutions can be both leaner and stronger.”
Students can save a lot of money by choosing a community college for their first two years of higher education, Courtney said. “Transferring from community college to a four-year university, however, can be a daunting task for many students.”
Creating a merged community college and four-year university would reduce the “transitional challenges,” Courtney said, by ensuring the two institutions would create “curricular continuity” to guarantee students’ community college credits would count directly toward a bachelor’s degree.
Courtney said it would also expose students to paths they may have not otherwise taken. He gave the example of a student pursuing an EMT certification who would then be able to see a direct path to getting a pre-med bachelor’s degree.
“I know it’s a different idea. … If we don’t change how [the] higher education system operates, we’re going to leave a lot of our students behind, and Oregon is going to lose out on a lot of potential,” Courtney said.
Oregon Sen. Michael Dembrow, chair of the Senate Committee on Education which held the public hearing for the bill, questioned the details of the legislation Monday — specifically how bringing together two different institutions’ funding streams and governance systems would work.
“The community colleges, their boards are elected by their local communities and they’re really proud of that, and that is a special relationship they have with their communities, and that’s a question we’d need to solve,” Dembrow said.
Members of the boards of trustees at Oregon’s public universities are named by the governor and confirmed by the state senate.
“Those are details that can be worked out, but I will say my hope had been that this year we would see a couple of institutions that wanted to explore that kind of relationship, and then we could do some kind of pilot and try it out,” Dembrow said. “It seems like we’re not there yet.”
No universities, at least publicly, have stated any desire to pursue such a merger.
Presidents of both Eastern Oregon University and Southern Oregon University testified neutrally on the bill Monday.
“At this time, frankly I don’t know if merging institutions would solve the numerous issues we have in front of us,” Tom Insko, EOU President, said. “I do however believe it is our responsibility to evaluate and clearly understand if there are opportunities to do better and not let old paradigms and structures hamper our ability to accomplish extraordinary outcomes for current and prospective students, and I think SB 1 could be one tool that could help.”
Insko also noted that EOU faculty have worked to improve course transferability to ensure that students coming from community colleges can retain their credits.
SOU President Linda Schott said her institution is already working closely with Rogue Community College to ensure a smooth transfer process for students. The university has also been working with the regional workforce board to communicate with K-12 students about pathways to higher education.
“Senate Bill 1 has an important goal at its heart — higher education must innovate to meet the needs of learners today and tomorrow and to operate as efficiently as possible,” Schott said. “Changing the way we have done things for decades is hard, and it’s even harder when it involves merging institutions with different histories and missions. In Southern Oregon, we are innovating willingly because we want to better serve students and improve institutional outcomes.”
Courtney noted that he had talked about the idea of a community college and university merger with Western Oregon University and Chemeketa Community College back in 2006 or 2007, but he said the two provosts at the time disliked each other, so it did not go anywhere.
“I understand that territorial stuff,” Courtney said. “I’m just saying, if a four-year university and a community college say, ‘We want to do this.’ They ought to have the option, and this bill would allow them that.”
Sen. Dembrow also stated that there is “legitimate concern among the community college people that if you merge the two institutions, the university people will want to run the show.”
Courtney said Monday that the Oregon Community College Association opposes the bill. The association disputes that.
OCCA said in a statement Tuesday that it has taken a neutral position on the bill since it would allow voluntary mergers, and does not create any sort of requirement.
“However, OCCA and the community colleges believe we could accomplish much of what Sen. Courtney would like to see happen with fewer structural hurdles,” the association said in its statement. “OCCA fully supports Sen. Courtney’s goal of creating a seamless system that works for all students.”
The association said it is worth looking at other innovating models such as the Southern Oregon Higher Education Consortium — an alliance between Klamath Community College, Rogue Community College, Southern Oregon University and the Oregon Institute of technology which looks to streamline student pathways and address regional workforce needs.
Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission gave a memo to legislators ahead of Monday’s public hearing noting experiences and best practices of other states that have created mergers similar to those Senate Bill 1 is looking to allow.
“While mergers can save resources in the end, they tend to require additional resources in the short term, and are best begun before there is a financial crisis at hand and when there is a clear strategic vision for stakeholders to focus on,” the memo from the HECC reads. “The decision to merge is not an easy one, and may be particularly challenging for board members, faculty and staff who are deeply committed to institutional identity and mission and see merging as a threat to their college or university.”
The memo states that mergers are often most successful when initiated or led by an outside agency such as a Governor, Legislature or state higher education entity.
The HECC memo lays out what some states have done, and that many of the ways of merging institutions have been different from just “the university absorbing a community college envisioned in SB 1.”
For instance, Georgia there has been a reorganization of institutions in an existing public higher education system into a smaller number of new ones, the memo said. In Maine, mergers include consolidating a few colleges that are part of a larger system. Also in Maine, there has been an approach to combine institutions under a single accreditation system “in order to give students at smaller campuses better access to a wider range of programs.”
Ben Cannon, director of the HECC, said that there are other ways to bring institutions together other than a strict merger. He suggested common course numbering — which Oregon legislators are discussing in a separate bill.
Cannon also noted that it’s important to think about institutional reform and innovation, but that there should also be focus on “underlying considerations” such as lacking state funding. He said Oregon funds its post-secondary education system at a level that’s 20% less than the national average per student.
“When we wonder why Oregon doesn’t achieve nation-leading results, that is certainly one of the reasons,” Cannon said.
Sen. Dembrow agreed.
“The effort to increase our investments needs to be combined with an effort to improve our investments,” he said. “The two really go hand in hand.”