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Higher education is key to Oregon

The crown jewels of Oregon's economic future can be found in Eugene, Corvallis, Portland and several other locations around our state. Simply put, our economic future can be found at any one of Oregon's seven public universities and seventeen community colleges. Yet despite the self-evident value, our state has fundamentally failed to support our system of higher education.

The importance of our system of higher education is obvious, but bears repeating. First, a healthy, research-driven public university system generates the ideas that will lead to Oregon's industries of tomorrow. Biotech; nanotech; high-tech; life sciences; environmental sciences and wealth-creating creative services are just a few of the disciplines in which Oregon will thrive through university research.

Our colleges and universities also produce the talented and energetic graduates that will enable Oregon to successfully compete in the 21st century world market. Globalization, open-markets and trade liberalization are here to stay. That's a good thing! But our ability to compete successfully depends on plenty of talented and creative graduates coming from Oregon's colleges.

Finally, it's well demonstrated that college graduates earn higher incomes, pay more into state and local systems through taxes, and take much less out of the system through social services.

There is no area in state spending with a higher return on investment than our public university system. Yet Oregon ranks 46th in the nation for per-student public funding; we rank among the least affordable college systems in the nation for students; our university system budget is only 73 percent of the national average (short of the average by more than $130 million/year); and we pay our professors in the bottom quartile nationwide. It is hard to attract the best and the brightest when we effectively pay professorial minimum wage.

This is not something that can be resolved overnight. But we must begin. We must make the hard choices to rebuild our college and university system, even when that means prioritizing higher education over other budget areas. We also need new creativity. For example, last session the Legislature passed SB 853 which promotes private investment into university commercial-research ventures.

Another idea that I am working on is an Oregon College Trust program similar in design to the Oregon Cultural Trust. A college-trust program would allow Oregonians who make a tax-deductible contribution to an Oregon college or university to also make a contribution to the College Trust. The trust contribution would be a dollar-for-dollar tax credit up to a set maximum. Funds raised through the trust could be used for enhanced university programs, new research projects, providing merit scholarships, and recruiting the nation's best academicians.

Of course a college trust is no panacea, only a tool. Re-building our system of higher education must entail a sustained, long-term investment commitment from the governor, the Legislature and the people of Oregon. I believe this is the most important thing we can do for Oregon's long-term health, both economic and social. In the final analysis, our goal should be nothing less than building the nation's best colleges.

Rep. Scott Bruun, West Linn, represents House District 37, which includes portions of Lake Oswego, Rivergrove, Durham, Stafford, West Linn, Tualatin and parts of Tigard.