With a new Oregon budget forecast showing a boost of more than $1 billion in tax revenue above previous estimates, higher education officials see an opening for more money to fund public colleges and universities.

Oregon’s higher ed leaders hope that some of that anticipated funding can go to state financial aid. At least one university has said it would scale back its tuition increase for the upcoming academic year if the state provides additional financial support.

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Late last year, when Oregon Gov. Kate Brown released her proposed budget, she designated about $836 million to the Public University Support Fund, the source of money for operations and programs at the state’s seven public universities. Brown’s recommendation left the universities flat-funded — with the same amount they received last biennium.

With this newest state budget forecast, it’s looking promising that the public universities may get more than that. The universities have been advocating together for a total of $900 million in the Public University Support Fund. And that amount has already inched up from the governor’s initial recommendation.

“When you look at the Public University Support Fund, the $900 million request, there’s a lot of positivity that we’ll get to that number,” Oregon State University’s executive director of government relations, Katie Fast, told the OSU board of trustees Friday.

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Fast said earlier this spring, the legislature’s Joint Ways and Means Co-Chairs released a budget framework that put the PUSF at about $886 million — roughly $14 million short of that $900 million goal.

Even without hitting the $900 million goal, at least one public university said it would lower a proposed tuition increase if the current budget released by the co-chairs is authorized.

The Oregon Institute of Technology last month approved a tuition increase of 4.9% in both base undergraduate and graduate tuition. That’s the largest tuition increase among all of the public universities. But OIT said that it would decrease the tuition increase to 3.9% if the legislature were to increase the governor’s recommended funding by about $50 million — or the exact amount set by the co-chairs for the PUSF budget.

Official budget decisions typically do not happen until the end of the legislative session, but regardless, the new state forecast is leaving some higher education officials feeling more optimistic.

“The positive revenue forecast creates a clear opportunity for the Legislature to invest now to secure affordable access for Oregonians to colleges and universities, and to ensure that students are well-supported when they arrive,” Ben Cannon, executive director of the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission, said in a statement. “Postsecondary education and training has never been more important for getting a family-wage job, and we should be doing everything possible to expand this opportunity especially to first-generation, underrepresented minority, and low-income students.”

In addition to investing in the universities’ programs, Cannon said the state legislature should also expand financial aid for Oregon students — specifically the Oregon Opportunity Grant, a state-funded grant program for low-income students.

According to the most recently available data from the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, from 2009 to 2019, more than two million applications for financial aid were eligible for the Oregon Opportunity Grant, but only 16.5% of those students received the grant due to the grant’s limited funds.

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