CORVALLIS, OR -- College students face staggering debt at levels not seen in previous generations. At an Oregon State University “College Affordability Summit” Tuesday, the head of Oregon's Higher Education Coordinating Commission (HECC) and the Chair of the State House Higher Education Committee discussed what changes need to be made.
HECC administers the state’s financial aid programs. Executive Director Ben Cannon says the rate of assistance has not kept up with the actual cost of attending college. Students now face a level of unaffordability not seen before and Cannon wants more public investment, "I just think there is no way around that. You cannot continue to ask students to bear a greater and greater proportion of the costs of attending public higher education, which is what we’ve long been doing as a state."
Rep. John Lively believes the state’s budgeting process could change. Right now, he says, higher ed is an afterthought, when most of the state’s budget is already allocated, "We commit to K-12 early in the session, to commit how much money is going to be there. And we do that, and we vote on it and here it is. But we’ve never done that with higher education. In many cases, it’s at the end." He’s frustrated the $3.9 billion kicker can’t be used to fund higher education, "That just reinforces from my standpoint: there’s enough money, we’re able to raise enough money in the system to fund things correctly. We just have to figure out the process. I would love to see us repeal the 2% kicker."
Lively announced plans for a legislative task force, "This task force is indeed going to look at funding for higher education, with the hopes it will be ready by the ‘25 session, to address this huge gap that’s grown over the years of the state’s support for higher education. I don’t go in with any pretense of what the answer is; but if we don’t have the conversation that we’re serious about doing something about funding for higher education, the increments will never get us there."
Cannon wants to also see the state create pathways from birth through age 20, to ensure education resources are distributed equitably. He says improving access to higher education benefits the entire community, pointing out low-income Oregonians with a college degree are more than twice as likely to pull themselves out of poverty by their 30s, compared to peers without a degree. However, only 6% of university students in Oregon are low-income. "We are instead disproportionately giving that advantage, conferring that advantage on folks, like me, who grew up with advantage already." He also says applying for financial aid and navigating the transfer process from community college to four-year institutions can be so frustrating, students give up. Cannon wants to see those processes streamlined with more guidance for families.