Oregon’s public universities are at a tipping point

It’s my favorite time of year. The trees are just starting to turn color on the Park Blocks, the mornings are crisp, and thousands of students are getting ready to start classes at Portland State University. As I begin my ninth and final academic year as PSU president, I would like to take stock of what this ritual parade of books, backpacks and brainpower really means for our state and our city.

First, and most obvious, is the incalculable opportunity that comes with a college degree. Rising tuition costs, prompted by steep drops in state support, have left the misimpression that a college education has become restricted to the privileged class. Not so.

At PSU, 39 percent of our 29,000 students come from low-income families. Roughly one out of every three entering freshmen is the first in their family ever to attend college. Nearly 40 percent of our incoming freshmen are students of color. They come with help from PELL grants, state financial aid, family members and other sources, including student loans. These students and their families, many of whom are making tremendous sacrifices, know better than anyone that college is their ladder to a successful career.

They and their classmates represent the economic, cultural and civic future of Portland and Oregon. The vast majority, 80 percent, will remain in the area after graduation to join the workforce, start new companies, teach our school children, raise families and become part of the social fabric of this wonderful place. Local companies and organizations, from Intel to OHSU, hire more graduates from PSU than from any other college.

Oregon’s universities are not isolated bubbles of learning and academia. At PSU, we require all students to spend time in the community working on projects or working as interns in businesses, schools, nonprofits or government organizations. They gain invaluable experience, and we as a region benefit from their sweat equity. On a yearly basis, our students put in an estimated 1.1 million volunteer hours, which translates to $26.8 million in value to the community. That’s truly how, as our motto says, we “let knowledge serve the city.”

As PSU has grown on Portland’s south Park Blocks, we have established ourselves as an essential partner in the region’s economy. Not only are we educating future leaders, we also are pumping hundreds of millions of dollars annually into local coffers. Our faculty brings in more than $66 million a year in federal research dollars. And while 78 percent of our students are Oregonians, we educate thousands of out-of-state and international students, who spend an estimated $241.5 million a year locally.

All told, economists peg PSU’s impact at around $1.4 billion a year. Add in the contributions made by the University of Oregon, Oregon State and the four regional universities and it’s impossible to deny the positive difference we are making in Oregon.

In my time here, we have done all we can to shore up PSU’s financial strength: We tripled private fund-raising; we struck a $25 million development deal with the city to modernize our campus; we forged a coalition with local businesses to raise local revenue for scholarships and student support. We also have worked hard to keep costs down to the point where PSU now charges the second lowest tuition and fees among all the public universities in the state.

I believe, however, that Oregon has come to a tipping point. If we return to our historic pattern of cutting state higher education funding, we will have to raise tuition to the point where we will price out the very students who need us most. They will suffer, our universities will suffer and, ultimately, Oregon will suffer from this loss of human potential.

Other states have concluded, wisely, that healthy funding of their universities is not a subsidy but an investment in a better future. It is my deepest hope, as I prepare to leave the president’s office at PSU, that Oregon makes the same decision.

My wife, Alice, and I have grown to love this state, this city and especially this university. After taking a sabbatical in 2017, I will return as a member of the PSU faculty in the College of Urban and Public Affairs. There, I will work to ensure that Portland State and Oregon’s public universities attain even higher levels of excellence.

 

Note: This first appeared in The Oregonian, Sunday, Sept. 11

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