Seven Oregon public university presidents have one shared goal. The goal, if realized, would lower tuition rate increases at many of the state’s public universities, including Eastern Oregon University, according to a letter the presidents sent to the Oregon Legislature.

The presidents of Oregon’s seven public universities are campaigning for the Legislature to add $100 million to the proposed higher education budget for the 2017-19 biennium. The budget Gov. Kate Brown submitted to the Legislature calls for higher education to receive $667 million, the same amount the state is providing in the present biennium.

“We would basically be flat-funded for the 2017-19 biennium,” said EOU President Tom Insko.

Eastern’s operating costs are rising at a rate of 3 to 4 percent a year. Unless the $100 million request is granted, tuition rates for Oregon residents will have to be boosted between 5 and 7 percent each year to make up the difference, Insko said. The Eastern president said this would not be fair to the school’s students.

“We would be balancing our budget on the backs of students,” Insko said.

Brown’s budget reflects the state’s financial difficulties, with Oregon facing a $1.6 billion shortfall, said Richard Chaves, a member of the EOU Board of Trustees.

Should the university presidents’ request be granted, Eastern would receive an extra $2 to $3 million for the 2017-19 biennium. This would mean that Eastern’s tuition increases for the next two academic years would be between 2 and 3 percent, Chaves said. This would be lower than the past tuition increases of 3.9 percent for 2016-17 and 4.9 percent for
2015-16 for Oregon residents.

Insko noted that Eastern’s students are especially price-sensitive because many are from lower income families.

“We have the highest percentage of students with high needs in the state,” Insko said.

He said about 55 percent of EOU’s students qualify for federal Pell grants, which is more than at any of Oregon’s other public universities. Pell grants are need-based awards for students who meet the financial requirements.

EOU sophomore Steven Beaudry said that a tuition increase of 5 to 7 percent would hurt the university’s enrollment.

“It would prevent a lot of students from coming here,” he said.

EOU sophomore Enrique Sanchez said the looming tuition increase is not yet a big topic on campus.

“I don’t think a lot of students know about it yet. I have not heard complaints,” Sanchez said.

Insko said that even if the state’s public universities do not receive the extra $100 million, Eastern will not have to make any program or staff cuts. He said EOU’s financial status has improved to the point that it can survive a flat-funded biennium without having to make cutbacks.

“It is a challenging environment. The good news is that this isn’t a crisis,” the president said.

EOU’s fiscal situation is the best it has been in 12 years, in terms of the size of its reserve fund, Insko said. This reflects prudent spending and improving enrollment, he said.

Chaves, a member of the EOU Board of Trustees’ finance committee, said that Eastern’s reserve fund is 16 percent of its annual total annual revenues, far greater than it was about five years ago.

“EOU is in a strong financial position,” Chaves said.

The trustee credits Insko’s expertise in helping to right Eastern’s financial ship. Insko, completing his second year as president, was previously the area manager for Boise Cascade’s Inland Region.

“Tom Insko has outstanding experience in the private sector in business management. He has applied that experience in managing EOU. His management is one of the main reasons EOU is in the position it is today,” Chaves said.

All tuition increases have to be approved by the EOU Board of Trustees. The board’s finance committee will discuss tuition increases and take input from students and the public when it meets April 5. The meeting will start at 9 a.m. The site of the meeting will be announced later.

Contact Dick Mason at 541-786-5386 or . Follow Dick on Twitter @lgoMason.