2013 Legislative Wrap: A Step in the Right Direction for Higher Education

This is part of our 2013 Legislative Wrap series, where we’re giving the rundown on what the Oregonian Legislature accomplished across a range of issues and “grading” them on their work. For more in this series, hit the jump.
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“Students can claim great victories this session with increases to all our public colleges and financial aid for the first time since the start of the recession.” — Oregon Student Association

HighEdchart1It’s no secret that our nation’s youth have been rocked by student debt in recent years. In Oregon, much of that increase comes from rapidly increasing tuition rates, as the University system has received fewer and fewer dollars from state funds. As a consequence, Oregon students have seen diminishing opportunities for financial aid while simultaneously reaping an increased burden of operation costs.  Oregon currently holds the embarrassing distinction of 47th in the nation for state spending on higher education (by percentage of overall budget.) It’s no wonder that many young people in Oregon have been left wondering if college was still a good investment – despite Oregon’s growing business needs for educated workforce.

While there are still some concerns about tuition rate increases, lawmakers made serious efforts this cycle to identify progressive policies to address the serious state of higher ed in Oregon. The Legislature passed policies to minimize tuition rate increases, expanded education opportunities to Oregonians, identified new sources of revenue for financial aid, and approved investigation into the creative “pay it forward, pay it back” tuition model.


Reduced Tuition Rate Hikes

Oregon Republicans time and time again blocked Democrats’ efforts to pass revenue proposals that would have increased funding to higher ed, rolling back – and even potentially freezing – tuition hikes. Despite this obstruction, lawmakers made strides to at least minimize rate hikes; while most Oregon students will still see increases to their tuition bills next year, it will be the smallest increase in six years. The final higher ed budget proposal (HB 5008) passed with an additional $15 million specifically to reduce tuition increases –limiting tuition rate increases to an average of 3.5%.

May2013KickerPromo2Oregon legislators also passed House Bill 2787, the Oregon Tuition Equity bill, which will expand in-state tuition to all qualified Oregon residents. The policy will provide new opportunities to Oregon residents who may have otherwise been unable to attend college paying out-of-state tuition rates, and enables hardworking students to become skilled members of the Oregon workplace.

However, legislators missed an opportunity to roll back tuition increases even further at community colleges when they chose not to take action on the corporate kicker tax break.  House Bill 2305 would have re-allocated this budget cycle’s corporate kicker tax funds to Oregon’s community colleges, to limit tuition hikes at Oregon’s community colleges. By failing to act, the Legislature has allowed these funds to be sent to mostly out-of-state corporations as a tax giveaway instead.

Financial Aid

In addition to increasing the Oregon Opportunity Grant in the higher ed budget (an increase of almost $15 million since the last budget cycle), the Legislature passed SJR 1, Treasurer Ted Wheeler’s proposal to create a permanent and dedicated fund to finance aid for Oregon college and university students. The plan would create more opportunities for Oregon students, by providing increased funds for financial assistance. Voters will have the final say on the policy on their November 2014 ballot.

Treasurer Wheeler stated about the proposal, “How do we grow Oregon’s economy? A big part of the answer, of course, is educating our citizens…. And we’ve all heard about how students are struggling under the status quo.”

Other Creative Ideas

Eyes all across the nation are on Oregon, as the Legislature passed  House Bill 3472 to study the innovative “Pay it Forward, Pay it Back” tuition program. The passage provides opportunity to study and put forth a pilot program proposal for a program to enable students to borrow tuition dollars directly from a state fund, and to then repay the loan over time at a percentage of their salary income.

Oregon lawmakers also passed House Bill 3079, which would require for-profit colleges and universities to provide students with fact sheets regarding costs, loans, job placement rates, and other related data prior to enrollment. This policy could cut down on for-profit college track records of  poor performance, student loan default rate, and other undelivered promises at many for-profit colleges.

GRADE: A Pretty Good Somersault

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For more 2013 Legislative Wraps, check out:

Funding K-12 Schools
The Dirt on Oregon’s Environment

Cutting Tax Loopholes
Economic Fairness
Senior Services and Health Care
Other Important Bills

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