Challenges and Opportunities in Public Higher Education

By Don MacGillivray

Perhaps the greatest change in the requirements for future employment is an advanced education. More than three-quarters of Oregon’s future students will require a college degree to qualify for the jobs of tomorrow.

In 2014, thirty-one percent of Oregon students earned a bachelors degree or better. Seventeen percent earned an associates degree, nineteen percent went to college without graduating, twenty-three percent earned their high school diploma, and ten percent did not graduate from high school.

In 2011, Oregon adopted a new set of goals for higher education. The goal expects that 40 percent of Oregonians will achieve a four year baccalaureate degree, 40 percent a two year associate or technical degree, and the remaining 20 percent will successfully graduate from high school by 2025.

To achieve this 40-40-20 goal, the costs of funding higher education are in doubt because it is increasingly difficult to count on the State of Oregon for more financial support and students cannot continue to pay the higher tuition and fees.

In the 1980s, the State of Oregon provided colleges and universities with 15 percent of the state general fund. By 2014, this had dropped to 5 percent of the state budget and there are continuing pressures to reduce the amount even more. Today 60 percent of the funding for higher education comes from the increases in tuition and other fees.

Oregon has seventeen independent college districts with campuses and governing boards as well as nineteen private colleges and universities and over 208 private career schools. The median annual cost of attending one of Oregon’s eight universities is $25,500. For one of the sixteen community colleges, the cost is $18,100. For one of the nineteen private colleges and universities it is $44,800.

Tuition continues to rise making attending college more difficult to afford, especially for lower income students in need of a better future. In the United States, half of the students take six years or more to complete their degrees.

In 2013, the Legislature authorized independent boards for the University of Oregon and Portland State University. By 2015 all the public universities changed to independent boards with the directors being approved by the State of Oregon.

This change abolished the Oregon University System, the Office of the Chancellor, and the Board of Higher Education.

Their responsibilities were divided between these independent boards and the Higher Education Coordinating Commission (HECC) The new boards now have the power to manage the affairs of each University, including choosing the president, raising funds, budgeting, and managing tuition and fees under the watchful eyes of the HECC.

It is involved in everything including public and private universities, career schools, community colleges, student financial aid, and many other important functions.

Substantial academic changes must be reviewed by the HECC and they prepare the combined higher education budget request that becomes part of the state budget process.

HECC is given the responsibility for determining the distribution of funding from the state to community colleges, public universities, and other student access programs. They are responsible for measuring the effectiveness of the state’s educational funding.

A new and expanding role is providing opportunities to those that are disadvantaged for financial reasons or because of the achievement gap among communities of color, migrants, and rural students, compared with the majority of the student population.

All of Oregon’s public colleges and universities must use an “Equity Lens” to provide the support needed by under-represented students and increasing costs of higher education are adding to the difficulty of achieving these goals.

It is expected that student grants, scholarships, mentoring, and outreach programs will be available to help these students. Programs that can speed student progress and help them to be successful are in their early stages of implementation.

Accelerated learning programs in high schools, dual credit programs to allow the transfer of credits between institutions, credit for prior learning experience, advanced placement, and better transitions between community colleges and universities are some of the methods being developed and expanded.

A new program called “Oregon Promise” used $10 million to help 6,000 students afford college in 2015. It is awarded to those not adequately funded by current federal and state funding (thus, the name “The Last Dollar”), but in the future this program will require additional funding.

This grant can be used in any Oregon institution of higher learning, public or private, and students must first apply for and accept all available federal and state funding.

Another concern is the preparedness of high school students for college level work. Many require remedial math and English classes that increase the length and expense of their college studies.

Many high schools are now offering classes where students can earn college credit. Advisers and mentors are needed to help students identify and solve the myriad of problems to ease the path to success within the higher education system.

The HECC Strategic Plan of 2016 – 2020, continues to track the progress toward the 40-40-20 goal and plans to present modifications that reflect the current changing situation.

For example, the HECC goal concerning Oregon’s adult population will be modified and the goals for research and graduate level education are in the works.

The many aspects of the changing face of Oregon education provide challenges for the future. Among these are providing Oregon students with the opportunity to successfully complete college in four years and ensuring that those least able to afford college can successfully navigate Oregon’s system of higher education and advance lifelong ambitions.

For more on this subject see the recent study of Public Post-secondary Education in Oregon prepared by the Oregon League of Women Voters. It can be downloaded from either the LWV-Oregon or the LWV-Portland websites at, click studies from the dropdown menu.

It is a complete and well documented investigation of higher education in Oregon.

Challenges and Opportunities in Public Higher Education

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