Community colleges fear their state aid will be short
Some metro-area community colleges say the proposed amount of state aid is woefully short, especially compared with the share pending for state universities.
But a key lawmaker says that $570.3 million, split among Oregon's 17 community colleges for the next two years, may be all they get. That amount is more than the $550 million in the 2015-17 budget cycle that just ended — but just 1.1 percent above current service levels.
The budget for the Higher Education Coordinating Commission also proposes $736.9 million for the seven state universities, 6.3 percent above current service levels. Some of that money will go toward reducing already-approved tuition increases that reached 8.4 percent at Portland State University and 11.5 percent at the University of Oregon.
"The disparity between community colleges and universities came as an unwelcome surprise," said Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, whose district includes part of Washington County.
"Community colleges have been our first responders in times of economic crises. For the kind of wonderful innovative work the community colleges are doing, the differential is pretty striking."
But Johnson was among the 20 members of the Legislature's budget committee who voted Friday afternoon for the overall $2.4 billion budget (SB 5524), which now heads to a vote of the Senate and then the House.
"We need to be a little more supportive of community colleges," said Sen. Fred Girod, R-Lyons, whose district stretches over rural areas of Clackamas, Marion and Linn counties. "But overall, it's not a bad budget."
The metro area has three community colleges — Portland, which is Oregon's largest higher education institution in terms of enrollment; Mt. Hood in Gresham, and Clackamas in Oregon City.
"Oregon must support its whole higher education system," Al Sigala, an official with Mt. Hood Community College, said in a statement just before the committee vote.
A spokesman for Portland Community College said no official was available for comment before the start of the holiday period.
The two "no" votes on the budget panel were from House Republican Leader Mike McLane of Powell Butte — he said the amounts for statewide services, including the Extension Service and provided by Oregon State University, were inadequate — and Rep. Duane Stark, R-Grants Pass.
Dim prospects for more
Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, the committee co-chairman, said there is little likelihood of boosting general aid to community colleges in the budget reconciliation bill at the end of the session.
"I think we all would like to give community colleges and universities more," he said before the committee vote. "But we don't actually have more to give."
The session is scheduled to close July 10.
Dave Hunt of Gladstone is a former state representative and was Oregon House speaker in 2009 and 2010, a current board member for Clackamas Community College — and the father of Emily Hunt, a Gladstone High School graduate who starts at the University of Oregon in the fall.
"I understand why legislators are trying to keep tuition low. As a parent paying college tuition, I completely understand — especially one who is going to pay tuition for the University of Oregon," Hunt said Friday.
But he said he hopes the amount for community colleges is still "changeable."
"Both are critical parts of our higher education system, so that is why we are asking for equitable and proportionate treatment," he said.
Though Hunt said that a no-cuts amount of $634 million for the community college fund is a "lost cause," he would like to see it increased in proportion to the added share proposed for state universities.
"We know we are not going to get to a no-cuts budget," Hunt said, "but $608 million would be enough to avoid most cuts."
Hunt said community colleges raised tuition by an average of 4 percent for the coming year. At Clackamas Community College, the rate was 3.3 percent, from $90 to $93 per credit hour. Rates for Portland Community College are $104 per credit hour, and for Mt. Hood, $109.25.
"We have worked hard to hold the line, because we know our students are very cost-sensitive," Hunt said.
Devlin said that unlike universities, community colleges will benefit from growth in property tax collections, which the Legislative Revenue Office estimates will be 8.3 percent more in the next two-year cycle.
Sen. Rod Monroe, D-Portland, co-chairman of the education budget subcommittee, said he heard from several community college officials before the vote.
"I asked them not to have your people (legislators) vote no on this budget," said Monroe, who will be the budget's floor manager when it comes up for a vote in the Senate.
Oregon Promise changes
The Higher Educating Coordinating Commission budget also contains $35 million for the Oregon Promise, which legislators created in 2015 as a one-year pilot project to encourage recent high school graduates and their equivalents to attend community college. Lawmakers initially set aside $10 million in the 2015-17 budget for the project, which is modeled on one in Tennessee.
"It is expected that this could leave some 1,400 students without Oregon Promise monies," Mt. Hood's Sigala said.
Monroe said $5 million more would be added in another bill (SB 1032) that, among other policy changes, would subject Oregon Promise applicants to a financial means test. Students from higher-income families would be disqualified from such aid.
Legislators would have had to come up with a total of $48 million to pay for a full two-year program without a means test.
About 7,000 students currently enrolled under Oregon Promise would not be affected.
Hunt said he thinks a means test should have been part of the pilot project, although it was excluded from the 2015 law.
"The problem is the timing," Hunt said. "It's hard to change it retroactively after all these students have applied and a lot of them have made plans for the fall, and the colleges are doing their outreach events."
Under Oregon Promise, applicants must have a grade point average of at least 2.5, have graduated from high school within six months, and filed a federal student-aid application. Oregon Promise money is paid to applicants' community colleges only after their eligibility is determined for federal and state grants.
Hunt said some lawmakers are under an erroneous impression that the Oregon Promise money — now envisioned at $40 million total — counts as part of the general state support of community colleges. It does not.
But he said that while community colleges welcome Oregon Promise students, the state money simply offsets the tuition they or their parents would have paid — and community colleges need state aid to help pay for instructional costs that tuition does not cover.
Without the general aid, he said, "The more students we add, the more money we lose. Unlike the market, you do not make it up on volume."