A state that pushes students away from higher education is on an economic path to nowhere. Yet, that's the trend in Oregon in recent years, as state budget constraints and tuition increases have driven enrollment down at community colleges.

State legislators must reverse this downward slide by investing in higher education in the same way that they are putting significant new dollars in K-12 schools. A budget released by key legislators last week fails to make such an investment and cannot be allowed to stand.

Gresham's Mt. Hood Community College provides a prime example of what happens when a state disinvests in higher education. MHCC's tuition has rocketed from $37 per credit hour to $66 in 10 years. This led to an enrollment plunge, from a 1999 peak of 31,003 students to 23,850 by 2004-05.

Tuition increases and enrollment are directly connected. A recent study conducted for Oregon's community colleges shows that as the price goes up, the students stop coming. And there also is an undeniable link between Oregon's economy and the number of people who receive training in universities and community colleges.

Unfortunately, funding for universities and community colleges didn't fare well last week when the co-chairs of the joint Ways and Means Committee released their proposed budget for the 2007-09 biennium. Sen. Kurt Schrader and Rep. Mary Nolan reduced higher education dollars from what Gov. Ted Kulongoski had proposed, even as they tossed another $200 million into a K-12 pot already bulging from the governor's generosity.

Oregon's economy will lose if the co-chairs' budget isn't improved. Local legislators, and indeed any lawmaker concerned about Oregon's economic future, must insist that the state can do better.

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