A response to The Oregonian’s editorial board

Note: This is an op-ed I wrote with PSU Foundation Board Chair Mark Rosenbaum in response to a particularly harsh editorial in The Oregonian.

By Wim Wiewel and Mark Rosenbaum

We at Portland State University are puzzled by today’s editorial in The Oregonian that describes the pledge by local business leaders to help raise millions for PSU students as a “disaster.”

Really? Our current and future students and their families across the metro area use words like “enthusiastic” and “excited” to describe the prospect of more than $25 million a year going toward scholarships and student support such as advising and hiring faculty.

Strangely, the Oregonian/OregonLive editorial board dismisses such student benefits as “incidental.” With 70 percent of our 28,000 students dependent on financial aid to attend college, the benefits of this new college affordability coalition between PSU and business leaders should be obvious.

Many are unaware that students at PSU have greater need than their counterparts at University of Oregon and Oregon State not only because of their finances but also because PSU receives about $5,000 less per student. The disparity is driven primarily by PSU’s lower undergraduate tuition and our urban campus that draws far more metro students than out-of-state students who pay higher tuition.

Let’s be clear: We proposed a metro business tax because chronic underfunding of higher education by the state has resulted in increases in tuition, student debt and the number of students who can’t afford PSU or drop out for financial reasons. We need a long-term solution to reverse this trend.

The Portland Business Alliance recognizes our need but opposed the tax. Rather than wage an expensive and confrontational campaign, we have come together to develop an alternative that not only will support PSU but help forge deeper connections between us and the PBA’s 1,850 big and small companies in Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas and Clark counties.

That’s an unprecedented breakthrough that ought to be applauded by The Oregonian, as it is by political and community leaders. This is how metro Portland moves forward, in contrast to gridlock in Washington, D.C., and a campaign year already characterized by cynical attack ads and hostile rhetoric.

We recognize that this is just the beginning of what will be a long process to determine how the money will be raised. Business leaders have identified potential sources as philanthropy, a new state funding allocation based on need and an alternative regional tax. Raising $25 million a year is an ambitious goal, and it will take an ambitious partnership to get there.

Greg Ness, president and CEO of The Standard and chair of the Oregon Business Council, who will co-chair the affordability coalition, summed up the significance of the agreement: “The collective human and financial resources of all of us are better put to use solving this problem rather than engaging in a damaging and divisive political campaign.”

That makes sense. Metro business leaders depend on us to produce skilled graduates for their success. PSU generated $1.44 billion into the local economy last year. More than 100,000 PSU alumni live and work in the metro area. They are scientists and engineers at Intel, designers at Nike, physicians and nurses at OHSU, teachers in metro schools, tech startup innovators and small business owners.

From a personal standpoint, both of us have worked for years to build public support and increase private giving for PSU. We welcome the challenge of working for another year or two with business to make this commitment a reality. Our students and our community depend on it.

New coalition to raise millions for PSU

I am pleased to announce that Portland State University and regional business leaders have joined ranks to raise millions of dollars annually for PSU scholarships and student success measures.

We have formed the College Affordability and Success Coalition, which I will co-chair along with Greg Ness, chairman, president and CEO of The Standard. Working together, Greg, I and other Coalition members will develop a plan to raise a minimum of $25 million a year dedicated to need-based scholarships and other forms of student support.

This agreement is an important breakthrough for the university and the region. A citizens group had begun gathering signatures for a metro area business tax that would have raised money for the same purpose. Because of this agreement, the committee is suspending the campaign to focus on this new initiative.

Chronic underfunding of higher education by the state has resulted in tuition increases, more student debt and a growing number of students who either can’t afford to attend PSU or drop out for financial reasons. We need a long-term solution, and today is a step toward that goal.

The Coalition is made up of prominent business leaders from the Portland region and University supporters. Please join me in supporting the Coalition and this effort to make college affordable to more local students.