Higher ed budget favors Oregon universities, students in need, but disappoints community colleges

By Meerah Powell (OPB)
June 24, 2023 12:08 a.m.

The budget includes celebrated increases to state financial aid and a set-aside for universities struggling with ‘financial sustainability.’

With time running out in the 2023 legislative session, and action accelerating in the Oregon Senate after a Republican walkout that stymied bills for weeks, legislators on Friday passed a higher education budget for the state that’s drawing praise for its additional funding for financial aid.

House Bill 5025, the Higher Education Coordinating Commission’s agency budget, passed along with a slew of other bills that were stuck in the legislature during the six-week Senate Republican walkout.

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The budget includes more than $1 billion to be distributed among Oregon’s public universities, $800 million for the state’s community colleges and more than $300 million for the Oregon Opportunity Grant — the statewide financial aid program for low-income Oregonians. The budget also includes roughly $24 million to continue the Oregon Tribal Student Grant, an aid program for students from Oregon tribes the legislature authorized last year.

A sign reads "Portland Community College."

A Portland Community College sign is pictured in Portland, Ore., May 16, 2016.

Bryan M. Vance / OPB

“This is a step in the right direction for students and an investment in the future of our state, and we applaud the concerted efforts of all involved,” Nagi Naganathan, president of the Oregon Institute of Technology and chair of the Oregon Council of Presidents — a group of the public university presidents — said in a statement.

Naganathan and the Oregon Council of Presidents shared their gratitude for a $100 million increase to the Oregon Opportunity Grant, in comparison to the last biennium’s budget.

“The landmark $100 million increase to the Oregon Opportunity Grant is the most significant state investment in financial aid for students attending Oregon’s colleges and universities since the grant program was created,” Naganathan said. “This, in turn, will make higher education even more accessible for lower-income and traditionally underserved students.”

The Oregon Student Association, a student advocacy nonprofit, also gave praise to the legislature’s “powerful investment.”

“After a decade of underinvestment in postsecondary education in Oregon, the postsecondary education budget for the 2023-25 biennium is a promising step in the right direction,” OSA Legislative Director Nick Keough told OPB. “While there is still a way for Oregon to go, the Oregon Student Association is thrilled and appreciative to see this level of investment in our colleges, universities and need-based financial aid in the interim.”

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Still, some higher education officials were hoping for more state support.

Like many other institutions in the state and country, Oregon’s 17 community colleges saw student enrollment drop significantly at the start of the pandemic. With the colleges’ reliance on tuition dollars to help run programs, enrollment declines only increase the importance of state funding.

Karen Smith, the interim executive director of the Oregon Community College Association, said enrollments are back on the rise, and increased state financial aid is welcome news, but the colleges still need more support.

Although the colleges will receive an increase of almost $100 million over the last biennium’s legislative budget, according to OCCA, the $800 million allocation still falls short of what the colleges requested to maintain their operations — $855 million and an additional $50 million in one-time funds.

“Although this significant increase marks a positive stride forward, it remains insufficient to fully meet the colleges’ genuine requirements in supporting students and communities at their current level of service,” Smith said.

Many higher education institutions continue to wrestle with their budgets.

Linn-Benton Community College is set to vote on proposed budget cuts on Monday, which would result in cuts to employees, most controversially its faculty librarians.

Portland State University’s Board of Trustees voted on its budget on Thursday, resulting in the spending of $20 million in reserves. According to board documents, the university is forecasting an enrollment drop of nearly 4% and a loss of $25 million for the upcoming school year.

Southern Oregon University’s trustees approved a plan to lay off roughly 24 employees earlier this year due to budget concerns.

The legislative budget also includes $25 million to Portland State and Southern as well as OIT, Eastern Oregon University and Western Oregon University — all of which had seen enrollment declines over the course of the pandemic.

Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, said that funding will help support the universities in “realigning institutional offerings and resources with current and emerging enrollment and economic realities to achieve long-term financial sustainability.”

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