Ice Breaker

A House Bill would’ve frozen tuition but local higher ed says it didn’t fund enough

Photo by Henry Houston

Accessing higher education in Oregon isn’t cheap. Community college and university tuitions in Oregon have nearly doubled since 2005, according to recent data from the Higher Education Coordinating Commission.

In 2005, community college in-state tuition was $2,980 for the academic year and in-state tuition for universities was $5,219. 

Rising tuition is a barrier to accessing education, according to state Rep. Diego Hernandez of Portland. He and state Rep. Rob Nosse of Portland sponsored a bill that would have imposed a two-year freeze on tuition and continued to fund higher education at a state-level calculation funding.

However, as Lane Community College (LCC) dealt with its $8.3-million deficit on April 1, that bill wouldn’t have brought in enough money for Oregon higher education, which would have forced staff and program cuts to make up for an inability to raise tuition. 

House Bill 3381 is pretty much dead since the bill won’t go past introduction, Hernandez says. But the state needs to talk about tuition, he tells Eugene Weekly

“I think higher education is underfunded and tuition is leaving a lot of students in debt and making higher education inaccessible for many,” Hernandez says. “This is an important bill to make sure that we have that conversation that higher education is still inaccessible and leaving many students with a tremendous amount of debt after graduating that then cripple their financial opportunities later on.” 

He adds that the bill, despite its fate, is an important step in talking about higher education in the Legislature.

Lawmakers in Oregon have focused revenue on K-12 education, Hernandez says. When Oregon high school students graduate and want to go to college, he says that the state is saddling them with financial instability through ongoing tuition increases. 

HB 3381 came about in partnership with the Oregon Student Association and student body governments across the state. 

 “This bill is important for hearing the voices of students,” Hernandez says. “Those tuition increases are on the backs of students, predominately on low-income students.” 

He says he thinks in-state residents should be able to access higher education in Oregon, but the state has a revenue problem that, as a result, doesn’t allow an increase in higher education funding. The state needs to re-examine its revenue stream, Hernandez says.

“The current revenue system is based heavily on income taxes — this one-legged stool that, when a recession hits, it’s going to be very unstable,” he adds. 

The issue that LCC had with the bill was that the state wouldn’t have calculated enough money to offset an increase in tuition. 

Bret Rowlett, director of public affairs at LCC, says the state’s calculation for current service levels for community colleges in Oregon is $590 million. 

When Oregon community colleges calculated its current service levels, it was actually $647 million. This discrepancy in state funding has been going on for some time, which doesn’t address true cost increases.  

“Up until a few years ago, they treated community colleges the same way they look at reams of copy paper,” Rowlett says. “They said a two-percent increase in budget was enough to take care of any increases of PERs and minimum wage increase and everything else that’s out there.”

As LCC decided how to close its budget deficit of $8.3 million during a special session on April 1, college officials presented data to the Board of Education suggesting that, to compensate for not raising tuition, it would mean cutting several programs the college offers. 

Amadeo Rehbein-Verhoeven has attended LCC since 2015 and is the current student body vice president. He says he’s experienced a few tuition increases at the college. It’s not the $4.50 increase per credit hour that bothers him, he says. It’s the college’s tendency to increase tuition nearly every year. 

“It eats into my budget. The federal support I get to go to school doesn’t increase at the same level,” Rehbein-Verhoeven says. “The minimum wage doesn’t increase at the same level.” 

LCC’s Board of Education should look into cutting programs rather than relying on tuition increases, Rehbein-Verhoeven says. He points out that, among LCC students who have seen the college’s expenditures, the suggestion is it might be time to cut costly programs. 

 “I’d rather see people be realistic where we’re at,” he says. “Do you need to scale back your organization? To be equitable to your students, you need to provide the services they really need. You can’t put your hand in every single pot and give to every single program.”

LCC should instead focus on doing a few programs really well rather than raise tuition, Rehbein-Verhoeven adds. 

The college has a declining enrollment because students are priced out at the college — and suffering to pay for housing in a tight and costly housing market, he says.

The University of Oregon issued a statement to EW saying the school shares students’ concerns about the increased costs of a college degree. 

“We are working together with students, faculty, staff and the business community to make the case in Salem that the state should invest in making a college education affordable and accessible for all Oregon students,” says UO interim spokesperson Molly Blancett. “We don’t believe a freeze is realistic, but we want to keep the tuition increases as low as possible in the upcoming years.” 

Although lawmakers won’t get a chance to vote on HB 3381, Hernandez says the importance of funding higher education will be an ongoing conversation for future legislative sessions. He adds that he’s heard from interns about how important it is to ensure that higher education is accessible to everyone at this time. 

“That’s why we need more young people to run for office,” he says. “I think more people who are directly impacted to run for office, the more voices are going to focus on that.”