But PSU has one thing going for it: The university attracts and serves older students, a population for which other universities clamor, but struggle to support. OPB looked at how PSU's approach to nontraditional students compares with other efforts in higher education in partnership with the education journalism organization, Hechinger Report. That partnership culminated in this story and a lengthy, nationally-focused article by Hechinger's Jon Marcus.
The average age at Portland State is 27, and the 71% of students earning bachelor’s degrees next month are students who earned credits somewhere else before transferring to PSU.
Universities have been courting recent high school graduates forever. But that enrollment pool is not as deep as it used to be and universities are looking to older students to grow. Those students may have kids, or full-time jobs, or credits from college experience years earlier.
“This is really a new kind of population that they see as — to maintain their current enrollment, and survive financially, to be perfectly honest — as national demographics change,” said Rebecca Klein-Collins with the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.
Klein-Collins said universities start by offering evening and weekend classes, but they rarely look at other elements of the college experience — faculty and class interaction, for example. Older students can get frustrated and drop out.
But things at Portland State are different — and they have been since the beginning.
PSU started as Vanport Extension Center in 1946, serving nontraditional students.
“It was started as a regional hub, a regional campus for students coming back from the war, so serving veteran students,” said PSU interim vice president for enrollment and management Yohlunda Mosley. “So that’s really our roots.”
Seventy years later, that continues.
Jade Souza is a 36-year-old mother of three, with previous credits from community colleges.
“I actually started in an early college program when I was 16,” Souza said.
Between then and now, Souza had three kids. She said with all of that plus working, she never had time for a degree.
“I just was always parenting. That was priority, work was priority,” Souza said. “I was able to continue working and that felt more important than completing a degree at that time.”
Souza is a Spanish major with a student job. She’s worked hard to cobble together the funds to attend PSU.
Souza has taken on loans, but the university’s plan to increase tuition won’t affect her. She recently found out she’s received a full-ride scholarship from a private foundation to go to school next year.
“I’m really lucky to be in that camp,” Souza said. “Most students are not. Most students are taking out loans.”
The tuition increase isn’t final; the Higher Education Coordinating Commission requires approval on all increases above 5%. PSU will make its case June 13.
Souza is one of many nontraditional students at Portland State, some of whom are concerned about how PSU is spending money, in light of the proposed double-digit tuition hike.
Zac Mckinster is a 28-year-old Navy veteran. He has about a year left in his finance and quantitative economics double major.
“When I was younger, I wouldn’t have been able to handle school,” Mckinster said.
After years working in the Navy and as a carpenter, Mckinster said he had the focus and patience he was missing at 18.
He’s on the GI Bill and is not affected by the tuition increase.
But he’s disappointed in the reports of former PSU president Rahmat Shoureshi’s spending and his treatment of women in the workplace. He says the hiring of Shoureshi goes against PSU’s stated values of diversity and fairness.
“If they can’t vet out this person, how can they continue to champion these things?” Mckinster asked. “People aren’t going to believe them; they have no integrity.”
News of Shoureshi’s resignation included information about his severance — he’ll be paid $880,000 between now and August 2020.
That doesn’t sit well with Souza.
“To hear about the payout that he got, and the circumstances and how long it’s been going on, and the fact that we're not going to have details, is that demoralizing?” Souza asked. “Yes, hell yeah, that’s demoralizing.”
But even with the payout to the president and the tuition increase, the university continues to invest in its largest student populations.
At the same meeting the board voted for the tuition increase, they approved a budget that includes $180,000 for a transfer student success center, a one-stop shop to help transfer students succeed at the university.
PSU offers child care for student parents and hardship funds that students can apply for if they’re in need. There are lactation rooms and family-friendly study rooms throughout campus.
But the work that’s been going on for decades at PSU could be overshadowed by its recent troubles. Souza thinks that’s already happening.
“What they chose to do I think actually reflects really badly on the university and undermines its credibility in the public eye,” Souza said.
Portland State is better than most universities at getting nontraditional students through to graduation. The most recent national data shows that full-time transfer students earn degrees 61% of the time, within eight years. PSU boasts a 61% grad rate for all of its transfer students, including part-time students who complete in lower numbers. And PSU's rate is based on earning degrees in six years, not eight.
At the same time, PSU wants to expand its traditional student population. University representatives visit area high schools for “instant admission” events.
Portland State will continue recruiting students as they also begin the recruiting process for a new president.
Souza wants more transparency when PSU starts that search.
She wants to see a president that can rebuild the trust that’s been lost between the administration and its students.
And she wants to make sure PSU doesn’t lose sight of its original goal.
“There’s just a lot of potential there to lose the public spirit of education.”