Two students are studying in the commuter resource center at Southern Oregon University on a rainy Friday. They hope to be teachers one day, but on this day they are freshman nervously playing with their long hair as they discuss a 12 percent tuition hike for next year.
“I feel like I don’t know where that money is going,” says Kendall Conrad, a commuter student who lives in Medford.
“It definitely adds up," her friend Jordan Hewey says. "I feel like, 'is it worth it?' sometimes. I want to be a teacher. I’m doing something I love, but for a price.”
The hike approved Thursday by Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission means that students will see an increase of $18.17 per credit. “I’m a theater major. I take a large load so it’s going to affect me,” says junior Alex Giorgi who transferred from Portland. “I don’t claim to know a lot about politics, but 12 percent is a lot. It’s pretty outrageous.”
SOU students face the highest tuition increases in the state. Oregon Institute of Technology students will see increases of 7.4 percent. Requests for increases by two universities, University of Oregon (11.48 percent) and Portland State University (8.37), were rejected.
SOU’s tuition has increased by an average of 2.5 percent each year for the past four years. The overall "cost of attendance" — a combination of student fees, housing, tuition and text books — will go up by 5.8 percent this coming academic year, SOU said in a prepared statement. The governing body adds that SOU remains among the least expensive of the seven state public universities.
“I understand it’s one of the cheapest schools in Oregon, but that doesn’t help me,” says Giorgi, who feels the school could have sought out other options or at least had "real" discussions with students. “It went from 'maybe' to 'it’s happening.' It was more of an announcement than a discussion.”
Giorgi says he’ll have to find a job and somehow find off-campus housing to make ends meet. “It’s not like 30 years ago," he said. "It’s really discouraging and gives a lot of stress and anxiety on students.” He pauses as he plays a board game with his family in the student union. They've come to see a theater performance he is in this weekend. “It’s a struggle," he continues. "A bunch of things are wrong with the way things are going.”
Public universities have asked for $767 million in public support for the next years. That’s $100 million more than Governor Kate Brown recommended in her budget which she released to legislators in December before the legislative session. Lawmakers are dealing with a $1.6 billion dollar shortfall in the budget.
None of that comforts Joel Ferraro, a student in his third year who's studying lighting for theater. “It was a lot cheaper," he says, "but now it’s not so much of an advantage. I have friends paying out-of-state tuition and they don’t know if they’ll be able to continue.”
He says he's feeling frustrated at what he describes as a mixed message. “We’re so encouraged to go to school," Ferraro says, "but the job market isn’t as open and a college level degree isn’t as valuable.”
For Conrad and Hewey, it’s not just the impact on their wallets and education, but also their professors, who they feel are underpaid as compared to administrative staff. “There’s so many extra staff that do less and get paid more than professors," says Conrad. “For the amount of money we’re paying, they should get paid more.”
None of the students said they would quit.
"I’ll come back," said Hewey. "It’s kind of my only option. I’m in a program here.” But, she added, she worries that won’t be true for others. “More people will drop out. We’ll have fewer educated people. I don’t think it’s fair.”
— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.