A shake-up for higher ed.
Tucked away in Gov. John Kitzhaber's budget for 2013-15 are plans for the biggest shake-up of higher education since the creation of the Oregon University System's predecessor in 1932 and the formation of community colleges three decades later. Despite the uncertainties that are the inevitable companions of change, the governor's proposal could mark a welcome break from the state's steady withdrawal of support for higher education.
Kitzhaber calls for the formation of a new Department of Post-Secondary Education that would have authority over the state's seven universities, 17 community colleges, Oregon Health & Science University and need-based scholarship programs. Equally significant would be a shift toward providing state funding based on educational results, rather than according to enrollment-based formulas.
It's far from clear how the new state agency would function in Oregon's fast-shifting structure of educational governance. Simultaneously, authority is being consolidated in such bodies as the new Oregon Education Investment Board, which oversees education from preschool through graduate school, and scattered by such means as the creation of independent boards for the University of Oregon and Portland State University - moves Kitzhaber says he also supports. The guiding principle appears to be a pursuit of both autonomy and accountability.
It's hard to see how higher education could emerge from this transformation worse off than before. Under the existing structure, state support for higher education is on a long-term slope toward zero. General fund support for the system is currently lower than in any preceding two-year budget period in a decade. Community colleges have not fared much better. Both have relied upon steep tuition increases and private fundraising to maintain their operations.
A unified postsecondary education department would have a higher profile in Salem than can be presented by its separate parts, including the chancellor's office, the Department of Community Colleges and Workforce Development and the Oregon Student Access Commission. Rather than competing with one another for legislative favor, these and other components would speak as different aspects of a common enterprise - one that is central to the social and economic well-being of communities throughout Oregon. A consolidated department also offers the advantage of reduced administrative expenses.
It's significant that Kitzhaber intends to bring scholarship services under the new department's umbrella. Oregon cannot achieve its ambitious goals of educational attainment unless students can afford to attend community colleges and universities - and both are in danger of pricing themselves out of some families' reach. The institutions that provide higher education shouldn't be viewed separately from the programs that help make college affordable; a department with comprehensive authority could keep an eye on both the quality and cost of college.
At the same time, the UO and PSU are likely to join community colleges in having their own governing boards. The institutions will be held accountable to the state through achievement compacts that spell out how they plan to meet educational goals.
Higher education in Oregon is entering a period of rapid change, and apprehensions abound. But no one should regret leaving the status quo behind.