University of Oregon and Portland State University needed five votes from the eight voting members of the Higher Education Coordinating Commission to get their tuition increases through Thursday. They only got four.
Both UO and PSU developed their budgets over a period of months and leaders are now scratching their heads about how to deal with what UO initially called a "tremendous setback."
In a letter to the campus community, UO President Michael Schill said the HECC vote was "disappointing and creates uncertainty on our campus." Schill said it could threaten his efforts to "shield the academic part of our university" from budget cuts.
"If [HECC's decision] stands, we will be forced to make even deeper cuts at the UO than are already anticipated, including cuts that will likely affect student support services, academic programs, and jobs," Schill wrote, a day after the HECC rejected a proposed 11.5 percent tuition increase.
Schill said he would like HECC to reconsider its position, but added the university needs to consider "additional budget reduction steps" if additional money never materializes.
Schill said without the additional tuition revenue, the university would have to cut more than the $6 million it planned to trim already.
Portland State University released a brief statement Thursday before HECC had even finished its meeting.
"[Thurday’s] vote by the Higher Education Coordinating Commission will mean deeper cuts this fall at Portland State that will impact our students," wrote Ken Ma, PSU's director of media and public relations. "There are no good options here, and we are asking the HECC to reconsider [Thursday's] vote."
PSU estimated the rejection of its proposed 8.4 percent tuition increase means a $20 million budget hole just got deeper by $5 million.
HECC commissioners were critical of the large universities, suggesting they had not done enough outreach to affected groups, like students.
One commissioner also suggested that by rejecting tuition hikes it would send a message to state lawmakers that more funding is needed for public universities.
Lawmakers are wrestling with an estimated $1.6 billion budget gap of their own, with negotiations focusing on a combination of possible tax increases and cost-cutting measures.
Budget proposals from Gov. Kate Brown and legislative leaders have funded higher education at roughly the same level as two years ago. With public university costs rising, like other state services, the flat funding is essentially an across-the-board budget cut for Oregon's seven public universities.
The HECC votes against raising tuition were welcomed by student groups that rallied this spring against the hikes. They had complained state lawmakers and university trustees were balancing budgets on the backs of students struggling with rising debt levels.
Student protesters briefly interrupted Thursday's meeting shouting "HECC No!" and calling for rejection of tuition hikes reaching double digits.
Commissioners voted to approve increases at three smaller universities: Oregon Institute of Technology, Southern Oregon University and Western Oregon University.
In a statement released Thursday night after the meeting, HECC executive director Ben Cannon signaled an expectation the big public universities would come back to the commission to make their arguments again.
"We look forward to hearing how UO and PSU intend to either adjust their tuition proposals or present additional information to the HECC that could result in reconsideration," Cannon said in a statement.
The required sign-off from the commission is part of several big changes to Oregon's higher education system in recent years.
A few years ago, legislators required HECC to sign off on tuition increases of more than 5 percent. Brown pushed against any rubber-stamping of tuition hikes last month, by laying out five criteria universities had to meet to receive tuition increases:
- "Clear and significant evidence" the universities looked at alternatives to tuition increases over 5 percent
- "Clear and significant evidence" that low-income and minority students would be better served by the proposed increases
- A plan for "managing costs"
- A summary of how students, faculty and staff were consulted
- A report on how a possible increase in state funding would affect tuition.
The Thursday evening statement from the HECC offered two alternatives for UO and PSU, but they're not necessarily easier paths.
The universities could avoid returning to the HECC if they can rewrite their budgets with tuition increases that are less than 5 percent. Oregon State and Eastern Oregon universities avoided the high-stakes votes Thursday by limiting their tuition hikes.
Or HECC officials suggest university leaders could "receive approval from the Legislative Assembly" for the larger tuition increases. But that might not win university leaders any friends among HECC members and college students. They would likely prefer college leaders keep their focus in legislative discussions on state funding for higher education, rather than on lobbying for tuition increases.