Students from around the state gathered outside the State Capital Building on Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015 to rally for an increase in public spending toward higher education.

Students from around the state gathered outside the State Capital Building on Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015 to rally for an increase in public spending toward higher education.

Alan Sylvestre/OPB

College students have made a habit of rallying in Salem to get more state funding, and 2015 brought some improvements. But students are likely to show up in force again next year, as lawmakers grapple with how to spend billions in state revenue.

Gov. Kate Brown is proposing flat funding for higher education in 2017.

“The governor’s budget maintains higher education at the equivalent of the 2015-17 Legislatively Approved Budget,” the Governor’s Office said in its 24-page budget summary.

The summary also mentioned ongoing support for Oregon Promise — a financial aid effort that allows thousands of recent high school graduates to attend community colleges virtually free. It also proposed continued support for the need-based Oregon Opportunity Grant for students attending community colleges or universities.

But in a world of rising costs, flat funding is effectively a cut, and university leaders in Oregon say it will short change students and the future of the state.

The presidents of Oregon’s seven public universities released a joint statement Thursday urging legislators to increase funding. They acknowledge the cuts to higher education could have been worse.

“With limited resources, Governor Brown took great strides to protect students,” the presidents wrote. “The investments outlined in her budget will mean Oregon does not balance its books at the expense of those who are most vulnerable.”

But the presidents did press lawmakers to find ways to put more money toward universities. For years, university administrators have complained that inadequate state funding has forced them to raise tuition and fees, often pricing out students or forcing them to accept high debt levels.

“As the Legislature weighs difficult budget choices, we urge lawmakers to increase operating funds beyond the Governor’s budget,” they stated. “By doing so, every campus can keep tuition at a manageable level for the next two years and maintain vital support services that keep students on track to graduate.

In her summary, Brown acknowledged that her budget proposal falls short of what universities need.

“Access and affordability to higher education opportunities are essential for Oregon’s future, so this level of program reduction is unacceptable; one the Governor’s Office will be working with the Legislature to address,” Brown said.

The governor said the state’s budget hole has grown to $1.7 billion, when recently-approved ballot measures are factored in.