Postsecondary Redesign Creating Profound Changes
Oregon postsecondary education has witnessed more policy changes in the last few years than it has in the past 50.
With recent legislation in place, the state has redesigned the way it supports students and how it governs and invests in public universities and community colleges. Our public universities now have their own governing boards. State investment in universities, community colleges, and student financial assistance is now vested in and coordinated by a reconstituted Higher Education Coordinating Commission (HECC). The HECC has adopted a new funding formula that incentivizess state universities to produce better student outcomes rather than merely paying for enrollment.
The impetus for the new direction is a growing recognition in recent years that state support for Oregon postsecondary education has been trending in a direction neither good for students nor for Oregon’s economy. Diminishing state funds for institutions and for student aid – and resulting tuition increases – were making education less affordable and accessible to students at a time when more students should be seeking and completing a postsecondary education. Given state economic cycles, Oregon’s volatile revenue system, and competing demands on the General Fund, it seemed clear that returning to historic funding levels would be difficult. But there was agreement in policy circles that the state could make better use of the funds available and give schools more latitude to shape their own future and their service to students and the state economy.
The Policy Framework
Oregon took its initial steps to do that in 2011 when the Legislature adopted a broad package of legislative measures, described elsewhere at this site, to raise Oregon’s education attainment levels (the 40-40-20 goal), streamline governance, make education investment more strategic, and generally help the education system become more accommodating to learners to improve student achievement and outcomes.
In SB 242 the Legislature freed the Oregon University System from state agency status, giving the system more flexibility in operations. The bill also created the initial Higher Education Coordinating Commission as a way to to connect policies of universities and community colleges and give Oregon postsecondary education more coherence. However, the HECC was given limited authority, universities had little autonomy, and the state still invested in universities, community colleges, and student aid through departmental silos without regard to specific desired outcomes.
The 2013 Legislature addressed those limitations with HB 3120 and SB 270.
HB 3120 reconstituted the HECC and vested it with much broader policy and budget authority. The bill merged existing authorities of the State Board of Education for community colleges, the State Board of Higher Education for all seven universities, the Oregon Student Access Commission for student financial aid, and functions of the initial HECC. HB 3120C left existing agencies in place but it required their directors (the commissioner for community colleges and the executive director of OSAC) to report to the HECC executive director. This is the first time that state policy and budget authority for community colleges, four-year institutions, and need-based student aid reside in one place. The HECC also was given responsibility for degree authorization, approval of significant program changes, and oversight of private career schools.
The HECC was charged to adopt a strategic plan to achieve state postsecondary education goals, to recommend to the Governor and the OEIB a consolidated higher education budget request aligned with the strategic plan, and to distribute state dollars to community colleges, universities, and need-based aid to achieve state goals. In that context, the HECC was charged with examining an outcomes-based funding formula for community colleges and four-year institutions.
SB 270 authorized independent boards for all state universities. Such self-governance gives these institutions greater flexibility to respond quickly to student needs and it increases the potential for philanthropic support for institutions.
Since that legislation was adopted, Oregon has made significant progress in implementing its postsecondary transformation. Since the reconstituted HECC was formed late in 2013, the HECC has organized its work and developed a strategic plan for postsecondary education. In addition, both the HECC and individual schools have been engaged in a range of tasks to implement Oregon’s new direction.
- Adoption of new roles and expectations. On one hand, the state, through the HECC, is now more focused on student success than managing or sustaining institutions. On the other, state universities now have their own governing boards and are assuming more control over their own affairs and more accountability for student outcomes.
- Developing a new state university funding formula. The HECC has not only integrated the state’s investment in postsecondary education, but has also developed an outcome-based funding model that target state dollars to defined results for university students. The HECC, in April 2015, adopted new rules for how state funds will flow to universities. Schools will be funded largely based on the number of Oregon students they enroll and on how many of those students actually complete a degree. There are weights in the formula to cover high-cost programs and to provide additional funding for low-income students, and those weights apply regardless of what school a student chooses to attend.
- Increased student aid. Legislators allocated nearly $141 million for Oregon Opportunity Grants, a 23.6 percent increase over the previous biennium, to improve affordability for Oregon’s highest-need students. Approximately 16,000 additional students will be served through this new investment. The session also adopted The Oregon Promise, allocating $10 million to the HECC to make community college tuition virtually free for Oregon students who maintain at least a 2.5 grade average. That program will start in the 2016-17 school year.
Oregon still has more to do in postsecondary education. For example, more work lies ahead in aligning standards and assessments and designing programs and credentialing to help high school, community college, certificate, and university students more easily navigate the postsecondary system and obtain degrees.