Fostering a future

October 12, 2007 12:00 am

News stories and editorial pieces have drawn attention to the dramatic increase in tuition and other costs for students at Oregon's public universities.

Graduates in 2007 are carrying a record debt load of $19,000 — the eighth highest average debt in the nation. Oregon's community colleges boast the second highest tuition rates in the West. Average annual in-state tuition and fees have climbed from $1,943 in 2001 to $3,074 today — triple the cost of California's community colleges. Additionally, Oregon state aid is funded at embarrassingly low levels, ranking 45th nationally on higher education spending.

It's a sad state of affairs. For Oregon. For the higher ed system. For the average Oregon family that must devote 36 percent of its income after financial aid to ensuring their child can attend a public university. For students, who, yes, come out with a degree, but also graduate with more debt than ever. Everyone loses out when education and opportunities for career success are limited or altogether unavailable.

So what can be done to address this issue?

The Oregon Legislature took a good first step this year with an increase in Oregon Opportunity Grant funding to help students needing tuition assistance, boosting funding by $35 million to dramatically increase the number of students helped. In 2008-09, that grant will be funded at $72 million.

Businesses, organizations and individuals can — and should — be part of the solution, too. Consider donating funds, volunteering and becoming an active participant in the futures of Oregon students.

Some ideas for making a difference include:

• Establishing or contributing to a scholarship fund or tuition assistance program through The Oregon Community Foundation, the Oregon Student Assistance Commission and other organizations. Through such funds, worthy and financially needy students' lives can be transformed.

• Supporting mentoring programs like Access to Student Assistance Programs in Reach of Everyone (ASPIRE) that help students prepare for post-secondary education and ensure those who want to attend public institutions can. ASPIRE offers guidance on financial aid and scholarship application and admissions processes in nearly 100 Oregon high schools, serving 8,300 students and involving 1,400 volunteers.

• Becoming involved in local and state decision-making and legislative processes, ensuring lawmakers are working toward solutions that benefit the state's higher education system. We must look in every corner of the higher education system to hold costs down whenever possible, cut waste, find efficiencies and pool resources.

• Advocating for the underrepresented student population, particularly former foster youth, who need support accessing higher education opportunities. Contributing to the Oregon Student Assistance Commission's Dream Scholarship specifically for former foster youth is one way to help.

It's clear that something must be done to soften the impact of rising tuition and fees. It's clear there needs to be steadfast dedication to ensuring Oregon students have access to higher education that is best suited for them. We can all be a part of making this issue a priority…and making a real difference to the future of this state and its citizens.

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Mary Koza of La Grade is the director of distance degrees in the Division of Distance Ed at EOU. She serves on The Oregon Community Foundation's Northern Oregon Heritage Fund Advisory Council. For more information, visit www.ocf1.org or call 503-227-6846.