Was the denied tuition increase a victory?

At a recent meeting, the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission denied the proposed 9 percent tuition increase approved by Portland State’s Board of Trustees in April. This is the first time the HECC has denied a tuition increase for PSU. The denial could be due to Governor Kate Brown’s vehement urging to scrutinize tuition increases above 5 percent. The HECC turned down University of Oregon’s proposed increase, although three other universities in Oregon received approval.

Before the HECC met to vote on proposed tuition increases, the commission considered how each school had met five criteria given by Governor Brown. In Section A of a May 10 document written by the Funding and Achievement Subcommittee, HECC staff recommended that PSU’s tuition increase be approved on the grounds of satisfying Governor Brown’s criteria.

It was noted in this same section that the HECC was concerned student input did not have enough impact on the tuition recommendation. Good news here for PSU students who made an effort to voice their opinions. The HECC seems to have noticed. Members of the board also expressed concerns that the students of these universities were not being heard.  

The denial may initially feel like a victory for the student body, but it’s not all roses and sunshine for PSU.

Without the increase, PSU is facing deeper cuts to bridge a gap in the budget. In an April 26 letter to the HECC, PSU Vice President of Finance and Administration Dr. Kevin Reynolds mentioned a planned $9 million budget cut meant to help PSU cover the impending $20 million gap. PSU will have to make more cuts that could have a negative impact on the quality of our education. The plan to cut costs at PSU with the tuition increase includes the reduction of faculty through attrition.

In a statement from Ken Ma, PSU’s director of media and public relations, the additional $5 million in cuts the school needs will likely affect programs and need-based scholarships. In a response to the HECC, PSU identified itself as having more underserved students than other Oregon universities. With programs and need-based scholarships on the chopping block, it is these underserved students who may be hit the hardest.

In the face of similar budget deficits and a 10 percent tuition increase, UO is planning to continue pushing for its increase through the state legislature. Without an increase, UO will be making unfavorable cuts that have both the administration and the student body concerned. PSU may take a similar path before resigning to cutting another $5 million from the budget. The school will most likely ask the board to reconsider or appeal directly to the state.

Students can use the momentum from this landmark decision to put the pressure on the state now. The HECC’s denial can be interpreted as a message to state reps that it’s time to start spending more money on higher education. Student groups advocating for lower out-of-pocket costs need to carry the fight beyond the HECC now. Without money coming in to PSU from somewhere, deeper cuts could be more painful than a tuition increase.