All 7 of Oregon's public universities will raise tuition

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — All seven of Oregon's public universities will raise tuition for the 2019-2020 school year, with officials citing increased costs and less money than expected from legislators.

The hikes range from 2.33% at Western Oregon University in Monmouth to 9.9% at Ashland's Southern Oregon University.

Gov. Kate Brown had made education a priority of this session, repeatedly saying that she wanted to create a "seamless system of education from cradle to career." The Democrat expressed disappointment that higher education wasn't involved in a $2 billion increase for K-12 schools that legislators approved earlier this year, and she has continued to push the Legislature to increase university budgets to avoid tuition increases higher than 5%.

Legislators recommended a two-year higher education budget of $836.9 million.

That is $100 million more than last biennium, though schools like the University of Oregon said they needed at least $120 million more to keep tuition increases below 5%. The University of Oregon, one of the state's largest public universities, will raise tuition 6.91% next school year.

State universities can raise tuition on their own if it's an increase of 5% or less. Any tuition hike above 5% requires a review by the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, which met last week and approved the increases.

"None of us are happy that we will have to raise tuition by over 5 percent this year," Jamie Moffitt, vice president for finance and administration and chief financial officer, said in a statement. "Unfortunately, we had little choice given the current financial situation."

Molly Blanchett, a spokeswoman for the University of Oregon, said the school has to address a $34 million recurring budget gap and that they're "facing a very challenging budget situation" because of declining international enrollment and increases in employee health care and retirement costs.

Schools that were able to contain tuition increases are doing so at a major cost.

Portland State University was bracing for an 11% increase in tuition, though the school reduced that increase to 4.97% at the last minute, thanks in part to the legislative increase in funding. But the school still has to bridge an $18.6 million shortfall next year and is pursuing 2% cuts across the university, according to a statement.

Western Oregon University, which will have the smallest tuition increase among the state's seven universities, said it will operate on a deficit budget to avoid larger tuition hikes.

"We know that deficit budgeting is not sustainable, but the university's mission is to provide affordable degree pathways, and we met the challenge to keep tuition within reach for our students" said WOU President Rex Fuller.

Speaker of the House Tina Kotek said last week that the $100 million extra is "a substantial investment in higher ed," and it's unlikely that colleges will see additional legislative investment this session.

"We got as much as we think we can get into their system and now they're going to have to show us why they can't live with it," she said.

Thirty years ago, the state paid for two-thirds of its universities' operating budgets, with tuition covering the remaining third. That ratio has now flipped completely.

Southern Oregon University, which will raise tuition by nearly 10%, committed to automatically lowering that increase if legislators agreed to give more money. But even in the most optimistic of funding scenarios, SOU would have likely had to raise tuition above that 5% number because of years of legislative disinvestment that have forced administrators to run on deficit budgets.

"No option available to us would have been painless," said SOU President Schott in a statement. "These are the best choices for our students and the university, as lawmakers continue to shift the burden of higher education from the state to our students and their families."

The Legislature is expected to approve the final public university budget this week.

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This story has been corrected to show the University of Oregon is one of the state's largest public universities, not the largest.