Mid-term elections often see low turnout from college-age voters. This year, however, one of the issues on the ballot has potential impacts on the cost of school at Lane, which may invigorate a higher turnout.
Measure 86, also called the Opportunity Initiative, would amend the Oregon Constitution to allow the State Legislature to take out bonds to pay for higher education programs. The measure is a referendum — a recommendation from a specific group that becomes law only if it is ratified by popular vote.
This particular referendum comes from the desk of Oregon Treasury Secretary Ted Wheeler. Wheeler’s website says the measure is about increasing funding for “technical programs and workforce development” as well as Science, Technology, Engineering and Math programs. Through this measure, Wheeler hopes to address the widening gap between student need in Oregon and available student aid.
For example, the Oregon Opportunity Grant is a need-based scholarship that students automatically sign up for when they fill out the FAFSA. More than five times as many students have applied for the OOG as have received it. The Oregon Student Assistance Commission reports that more than 404,000 actionable applications have been received, in the last two years. Of those, only 60,980 received the grant — a record low of 15 percent.
Over that same period, the state dispersed over $51 million in Opportunity Grant funding, including 4.2 million for Lane students. The demand for state-funded grants has increased, even as funding has remained more or less static.
Even though grant money is still widely available, more and more students are in need. This is partly due to a drastic increase in enrollment costs at public schools in Oregon. According to data collected by collegeboard.org, full-time Oregon community college students in 2012 were paying almost 18 percent more than they were in 2007.
Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group campus organizer Jacob Wyant sees the spike in need-based grants applications as a natural result of economic hard times. “Since the recession, there’s been a lot of budget cuts for education. Peotple can’t get jobs, so they want to go back to school and get that training,” he said.
Since OSPIRG is a non-profit funded by student dollars, taking a position on a ballot measure would constitute a conflict of interest, as would a comment from the ASLCC.
Wheeler blames higher college tuition costs on state-level defunding of higher education. “The Oregon Legislature has been steadily shrinking the state’s share of public university costs,” the Oregon Treasury website states.
According to collegeboard.org, Oregon has decreased its funding for higher education 8 percent between 2007-2012. Students, in turn, have been forced to pick up the bill, whether through Federal Pell Grants, Stafford Loans or any number of private loan options.
Wheeler stated that this bill will address both ends of the problem — the rising cost of tuition and the lack of need-based grants that help students keep up with that expense. His office projects that the fund will be generating upwards of $12 million in student aid annually by the 35-year mark.
However, there could be some risk involved in creating endowments. Opponents of the bill say the risk involved in investing public money is too great compared with the potential payout in increased higher education funding.
Steve Buckstein of the Cascade Policy Institute, in a statement released on the think tank’s website, questioned whether most high school graduates are ready for college. He concluded that Measure 86’s benefit to society is nebulous; the result may be that Oregon taxpayers end up paying off bonds for 30 years with interest.
Wheeler, however, thinks there are sufficient checks built into this legislation to keep it from incurring too much debt. After seeing negative trends in the stock market over the past few months, Wheeler adjusted his recommendation for the endowment from $500 million down to $100 million. “If interest rates go up to 4.5 or 5 percent, bonding is off the table,” he said in an interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting.