Oregon’s Public Universities: Are They Succeeding?
More than 102,000 people enrolled in Oregon’s public universities for the fall term of 2014. That’s an increase of more than 47% since 2000, when 69,500 people enrolled. Yet, last year’s graduating class only awarded 21,000 diplomas. Six-year graduation rates at Oregon’s public universities show that about one in two African American or Hispanic/Latino students finished their degrees. For Caucasian students, the results were only a little better – three in five students received their degrees within six years of starting a post-secondary public college or university.
That’s not good enough.
Oregon’s lofty 40-40-20 goal of having 40% of Oregonians with a bachelor’s degree (or higher), 40% with an associate’s or technical degree, and 20% with a high school diploma by 2025 is ambitious. And, research shows that at current graduation rates, it’s almost impossible to achieve.
The Higher Education Coordinating Commission (HECC) found that 57% of Oregon’s high school class of 2006 attended some college, yet only 22% of that class had finished their degree by 2013. That rate is about half the 4-year college rate aimed for in the 40-40-20 goal and represents Oregon’s state-wide struggle with post-secondary education.
Many rural communities struggled even more in sending their high school graduates to public universities; for example, in Malheur County (in southeast Oregon), only 10.6% of high school graduates enrolled at an Oregon public university within the year after graduation. And, across the state, rural counties sent an average of only 16.0% of their high school graduates to public universities in Oregon.
From enrolling students to engaging them, to graduating them, Oregon lags behind in its goals for a variety of success metrics.
Back in 2011, when former Governor John Kitzhaber had just been reelected after an almost decade-long hiatus, education system reform became a top priority. It was then that the 40-40-20 goal was adopted, in the same year Governor Kitzhaber unveiled the Oregon Education Investment Board (OEIB). Tasked with finding, identifying, and initiating solutions to improve Oregon’s school system and achieve better student scholastic outcomes, the OEIB included citizens, a representative from the teachers union, a business leader, and even Governor Kitzhaber himself.
Unfortunately, OEIB never lived up to expectations. Last week, lawmakers in the Oregon Legislature decided to disband OEIB. Its four-year tenure was tumultuous; it faced both personnel issues and opposition from school boards, who felt that the Board’s goal attainment reporting procedures were cumbersome and duplicative.
Regardless of the OEIB’s disbandment, other education agencies are still working to improve Oregon’s school system. HECC’s budget proposal before the Oregon Legislature’s Ways & Means Subcommittee on Education outlined a few potential improvements to higher education funding; instead of using state funding on a per-student enrollment basis, HECC suggests shifting toward a funding mechanism that rewards quantifiable outcomes like first-year retention rates, six-year graduation rates, number of degrees awarded, and other areas beyond simply the number of people attending.
HECC hopes that this new type of mechanism will help stretch state and local funding for higher education and decrease the need for frequent tuition increases. Clearly, fixing Oregon’s widespread post-secondary education problems are about more than just money. But improving enrollment, retention, and graduation at Oregon’s public universities are good first steps in achieving – or at least moving closer to – the state’s difficult but important 40-40-20 education goal.