Think again

Yes, we can ... make higher education affordable again


One thing we can say about the 12,000 students who received degrees from Oregon’s public universities this year: More than any students who came before them, they earned their educations.

I don’t know if they studied any harder than my generation did when we were in college. But they paid much more. They worked more, borrowed more and tapped a lot more of their families’ income and assets to complete their educations — far more than any generation of students who preceded them in our lifetimes.

When I went to college 40 years ago, I got a state grant and, after my father’s death, a need-based scholarship from the university I attended. Also, thanks to LBJ and his Great Society, I was one of the first college students to benefit from the expansion of Social Security to the children of deceased workers. Even so, if I hadn’t scored well enough on the test that delivered that state grant or if I didn’t qualify for those Social Security checks, Plan B would have sufficed — I would have worked full-time during the summer and taken a part-time job on campus to cover my costs.

Back then, any student with the interest and ability to pursue a college education could always fall back on his or her own Plan B. If all else failed, and even if your parents couldn’t help you, you could work your way through college.

A powerful and productive state-federal partnership made this possible. After World War II, the federal government launched the GI Bill, and states expanded their colleges and universities to provide an affordable path to higher education for more of their residents. A generation later, the federal government added grants and loans to provide matching assistance to the baby boomers who became the second great wave of college students after our returning war veterans.

In the 1970s, a student with no resources could work full-time at a minimum wage job during the summer and maybe 10 hours a week during the school year and pay for a year at a top-notch public university like the University of Oregon. Today, that student would have to work about 45 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, to do the same.

Sadly, it is no longer possible to work one’s way through college, because both sides of that state-federal partnership have backed off on their commitments to an affordable higher education for their citizens.

States are charging more for an education at their colleges and universities and covering less of the costs. In the 1970s and well into the 1980s, for every dollar that a resident student at an Oregon state university paid in tuition, the state provided three dollars for the operation of that university. Today, for every dollar that a student pays in tuition, the state provides only 60 cents.

Compounding this problem, declines in federal support have shifted even more of the costs of college to the student and his/her family, worsening the squeeze on the middle class and discouraging many students from low-income families from even attempting to pursue a college education.

The default option for getting through college has become a different Plan B — B as in borrowing. Students graduating from Oregon State University this year averaged more than $20,000 in student loan debt. Prospective students from low-income backgrounds look at that number and say, “No thanks, I’d rather work for a living and stay out of debt.”

As a result, we’re losing thousands of students every year whose contributions to our economy will be limited and whose prospects for a middle class life style will diminish.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Even if we can’t count on any more help from the federal government, we can, as a state, make a higher education affordable again by restoring the promise made to earlier generations — that if all else fails, you can always work your way through college.

As a member of the state’s Board of Higher Education, I have co-chaired a pioneering project that researched the costs and benefits of restoring that promise. We looked at what a student could earn working a minimum wage job, reduced the need to borrow, assumed a family contribution in line with the federal financial aid model and added in the federal Pell Grants. We crunched those numbers and found that about 25 percent of our students would still be short of covering their costs at one of our public universities.

Then we asked ourselves: What if the state became the promise keeper of last resort and pledged to make up the difference if a student’s work effort, family resources and federal grants fell short of covering the cost of tuition, fees, books, room and board? The answers were eye-opening.

Making and keeping that promise would cost another $75 million a biennium on top of the $78 million now budgeted for the Oregon Opportunity Grant program — an amount equivalent to 5 percent of new revenues that the state is expected to receive from a recovering economy over the next four years.

Fulfilling that promise would make college truly affordable for 43,000 Oregon students in our colleges and universities, 23,000 of whom are now struggling to get by with no help from the state.

Most importantly, promoting that promise — telling Oregonians that we’re going to make a higher education in Oregon truly affordable again by the time next year’s eighth graders graduate from high school — can help stir the aspirations of future generations of students whose education will be critical to our state’s prosperity and their personal success.

We’re not sure whether to call this our “Earned Opportunity Program” or “Shared Responsibility Model.” But with Gov. Ted Kulongoski encouraging our efforts and key legislative leaders signaling support, we’re hoping to call it a success story for Oregon’s future.

Tim Nesbitt is former president of the Oregon AFL-CIO. For more information, check out the Oregon AFL-CIO online at