A state that pushes students away from higher education is on a path to nowhere.

Yet that's the trend in Oregon in recent years, as state budget constraints and tuition increases have driven enrollment way down at community colleges, held enrollment flat at universities and caused programs to disappear throughout higher education.

State legislators must reverse this slide toward economic mediocrity by investing in higher education in the same way that they are putting significant new dollars in K-12 schools. A budget released recently by key legislators falls short of making that investment and cannot be allowed to stand.

Our economy will suffer

Portland Community College and Mt. Hood Community College provide prime examples of what happens when a state gives a lower priority to higher education. MHCC's tuition has rocketed from $37 per credit to $66 in 10 years. This contributed to an enrollment plunge, from a 1999 peak of 30,510 students to 23,850 by 2004-05.

The same story is being written in even larger numbers at PCC. Enrollment was approximately 105,000 in 2001, when the cost per credit stood at $42. This year, enrollment is down a whopping 17,000 students from that peak, and tuition has reached $73 per credit.

The state's support for PCC has declined from 55 percent of the college's budget in 2001 to 42 percent today. Students are making up the budgetary difference.

Tuition increases and enrollment are directly connected. A recent study conducted for Oregon's community colleges shows that as the price goes up, 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. If tens of thousands of Oregonians can no longer afford to enter the economic gateway that colleges offer, this state's prosperity will wither.

Budget must be fixed

Unfortunately, funding for universities and community colleges didn't fare well when the co-chairs of the joint Ways and Means Committee released their proposed budget for the 2007-09 biennium.

Sen. Kurt Schrader, D-Canby, and Rep. Mary Nolan, D-Portland, reduced higher education dollars by $41 million from what Gov. Ted Kulongoski had proposed, even as they tossed another $200 million into a K-12 pot already getting bigger from the governor's generosity.

Schrader and Nolan also slashed the governor's proposed capital funding for higher education.

It's true that community colleges and universities still would receive an increase in state operating funds over the previous biennium, but not enough to cover rising costs - and certainly not enough to lower tuition and begin to encourage students to return to higher education.

Schrader and Nolan were wise to keep intact a proposed $47 million college grant program, but the grants are of limited value if colleges are unable to offer programs students want.

The higher-education budget proposed by Schrader and Nolan is especially puzzling in light of the remarkable 18 percent increase in funding that the two lawmakers now are suggesting for K-12 education. This imbalance must be corrected.

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 do better.

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