New model for higher education spending proposed


Oregon already has a blueprint for how much the state would spend on K-12 education every year, if money were no object.

Now, the state is preparing to devise a similar model for its higher education system, a local sign of the nascent nationwide movement toward more public accountability for universities and community colleges.

But the existing K-12 model has been slow to catch on among lawmakers. They have lauded its goals to detail exactly how much it would cost to bring nearly every student in the state up to grade level performance in key academic subjects, but studiously ignored its spending recommendations, which are far higher than current funding levels.

Schools advocates have even gone to court over the discrepancy between what's outlined in the K-12 model and what lawmakers have actually allocated for public schools, in a lawsuit that's still in its early stages.

It's against that mixed backdrop that Gov. Ted Kulongoski signed off Tuesday on creating a "post-secondary quality education commission," whose members will develop the model.

Funding for higher education was front-and-center this year in Salem during the legislative session that concluded in June. Lawmakers wound up boosting state spending on higher education significantly, allocating $868 million to Oregon's seven public university and about $500 million to the state's 17 community colleges.

But that money came only after years of dwindling state support, and related hikes in tuition, a boom-and-bust cycle that Kulongoski said he hopes to halt with the addition of research-driven data on exactly how much is needed to ensure that Oregon students are getting a quality college education.

The governor has asked for at least some of the work on the model to be completed by next fall, in time for him to use its recommendations in developing his budget proposal for the 2009-2011 fiscal biennium.

"We are hoping that maybe in time, people will begin to see the broader value of these models," said Jim Sager, an education policy adviser to Kulongoski.

The new model will probably look different than the K-12 version, partly because colleges are quite different from one another: the Oregon Institute of Technology, in Klamath Falls, has a far different mission than Portland State University, for example. Public schools also have an easy benchmark to judge success, via the standardized tests that are periodically administered to students.

College success is different, said Sager, and could be measured by a number of criteria, including how many students graduate on time, how many find employment in their chosen field, or how students "value" their collegiate experience, from whether they take a preponderance of large lectures to whether they are taught primarily by graduate students and adjunct faculty.

State universities have generally been free from too much public oversight, but that's been changing in the past few years. U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings in 2005 convened a commission on the "role and performance" of higher education nationwide. The group has since called for using federal oversight of accreditation agencies to require colleges to more fully report on how well they are educating their students.

Faculty are watching closely and are wary of standardization, said David Conley, a professor of education at the University of Oregon who helped to develop the K-12 version. Basing the merits of a university on graduation rates, for example, could prompt faculty concerns, Conley said, since students may not have been well-prepared to enter college, or could be struggling to pay tuition bills.

Oregon is also stepping into uncharted waters, Conley said. Though other states have tried to track whether money that goes to higher education is being spent efficiently, Oregon will be among the first to try and pin down how much needs to be spent for optimal results.

The new commission will be co-chaired by Oregon State University President Ed Ray, and Lane County Community College President Mary Spilde.

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