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Board approves 10 percent tuition increase

The State Board of Higher Education approved a 10 percent tuition surcharge for Oregon University System (OUS) schools on Friday, with board members expressing interest in making the surcharge permanent.

The tuition surcharge is a last-minute measure to fill a $26.9 million funding gap in the event that a ballot measure doesn’t pass in January that would temporarily increase income taxes and increase state funds.

Full-time undergraduate Portland State students will see a $120 surcharge, full-time graduate students a $126 surcharge.

Jim Lussier, president of the Board of Higher Education, expressed regret for the necessity of tuition increases, and optimism for the future.

“We’re not real optimistic on that [ballot measure],” Lussier said, “but I’m an elemental optimist.”

Lussier expects some improvement in the Oregon economy next year, and an increase of funding for OUS schools.

While he’s not the sole voice of optimism on the board, there were a number of members who expressed interest in making the tuition surcharge permanent, anticipating the ballot measure would not pass.

As the plan is written now, there is a “null and void” clause that removes the tuition surcharge after spring term fees are assessed. If additional funding is found, the surcharge would be refunded to students and further surcharges would cease to be.

Some board members expressed interest in removing that “null and void” clause, making the tuition increase permanent and consequently not refunding any money to students regardless of outcome of January’s election.

“I’m kind of glad in retrospect that we didn’t,” Lussier said.

Melissa Unger, interim legislative director of the Oregon Students Association, a union of student governments from OUS schools, expressed relief that the board decided to leave the “null and void” clause in.

“I think that they have to be realistic, but this was an agreement that they made with students,” Unger said.

Board member Phyllis Wustenberg voiced concern over the current plan hitting students too hard, especially those students who are more in need of financial aid.

Currently, there are provisions in the plan to set aside as much as 10 percent of the surcharge’s value for financial aid.

Wustenberg and others expressed concern that “robbing” one student to pay another was not a healthy course of action, and reiterated the board should be looking elsewhere in the future.

The reason so much of a burden is being placed on students in response to the budget shortfall is the shortfall came at the tail end of a biennium, the OUS fiscal cycle, which ends with this academic year.

Lussier explained why programs couldn’t be cut this late in the fiscal year: “When you’ve already committed to two years, it makes it nearly impossible (to cut funding).”

Most faculty members have already signed contracts that don’t have provisions for being laid off, and the universities have commitments to programs and their completion.

Lussier believes next year, if cuts continue, the board will have more flexibility in finding nontuition-based solutions to budget shortfalls. Unless those shortfalls come as late-year surprises again.

Lussier met with governor-elect Ted Kulongoski during his campaign and was convinced the new governor is committed to funding higher education.

“He was extremely interested in what we were doing for strategic planning,” Lussier said.

The OUS, led by Chancellor Richard Jarvis, has proposed a “deal” with the state Legislature that would increase OUS funding to 80 percent of the national average. In return, OUS schools would work to be more flexible with tuition and some degrees of privatization.