Portland State University runs "Instant Viking" events at area high schools to admit students right away, and review next steps, like applying for financial aid.

Portland State University runs “Instant Viking” events at area high schools to admit students right away, and review next steps, like applying for financial aid.

Rob Manning/OPB

The presidents of Oregon’s seven public universities are telling legislative leaders they need a big funding increase to keep tuition down. That’s the main message in a letter the university presidents intend to send to legislative leaders this week.

The one-page letter is blunt: If legislators want to limit tuition increases, they better add at least $100 million to Gov. Kate Brown’s proposal for higher education.  

“To keep tuition increases below 5 percent at most universities, and also preserve current financial aid and student support services, state investment in the Public University Support Fund (PUSF) will need to increase by at least $100 million above the Governor’s Budget — in the 2017-19 biennium,” the letter states.

The presidents argue continuing to raise tuition will price out students who are already struggling to cobble together enough money to complete their degrees.

“The impacts of these large tuition increases and reduction in services have taken their toll on Oregonians. Retention rates, and at many universities graduation rates are down or stagnant and many students can no longer piece together a financial aid package of grants, loans, and work sufficient to fund a college education,” the presidents’ letter said.

The letter warns students may leave college with debt, but without a degree. Or that they take out so much money in loans that students “graduate with a lifetime of debt.”

Over the last four years, lawmakers boosted university funding after steep cuts for years before that. University presidents echo the slogans of many college student leaders in saying that funding has shifted “onto the backs of students and their families.”

The budget proposed last month by Brown would flat-fund public universities. College presidents say that’s really a budget cut, considering the rising costs of running their campuses. The governor herself characterized the university spending level as “unacceptable” in her budget summary.  

But universities are part of Brown’s approach to filling a $1.7 billion budget hole. That hole is largely due to rising costs of health care, public employee retirement and ballot measures that voters approved last November.