UO Should Freeze Tuition to Raise Retention Rates

The University of Oregon Board of Trustees are in town this week for two days of meetings. Their work has come more clearly into focus since the state ceded local control four years ago. The board has been charged with transforming the state’s flagship university into a quasi-public institution.

The state’s disinvestment in higher education has been ongoing for decades, but the state legislature only four years ago acknowledged the need for new leadership to its their place. On a college campus, four years is a full generation. That’s how long it takes for virtually the entire student body to regenerate itself.

So now is an opportune moment to assess the generation now past and chart a path forward for generations to come. Graduating seniors are shopping their GMAT or LSAT scores, accepting job offers, or making peace with their parents’ basement as they prepare for the next stage of their lives. The school’s trustees should be doing the same — except without the curbside futon sales.

Next week, thousands of University of Oregon students will be receiving what they came here for — a diploma. Most will be leaving with something else as well — a bill. Only now will they have a final and accurate tally for how much their education has cost them.

This is where the heavy lifting of creating a quasi-public institution comes to the fore. The trustees are continually evaluating every program and department, searching for efficiencies that will keep tuition costs competitive in the marketplace. But that is only part of the work they must do.

President Michael Schill sees a second path for education affordability. It shouldn’t conflict with making operations run more efficiently. He recognizes that the most significant way to contain student costs is to graduate them in four years. When students stay a fifth year — an increasingly frequent occurrence — their total education expense effectively rises 25 percent.

Affordability matters. Lawmakers in Salem abdicated their responsibility to the school, but the school must retain its responsibility to the state’s citizens. “Oregon” and “the University of” should not be separated, nor should anyone hope they could be. The state’s flagship school must continue its huge influence on the future of the state itself.

Wrap these unique challenges of a quasi-public institution together, and the trustees could get a new ball rolling. The incoming freshman class should be offered tuition price protection. As long as they stay enrolled full-time and on track to graduate within four years, their tuition costs each year should not increase.

Families who are able to pay for education without government grants or loans could be offered a discount for paying for all four years up front. Those prepayments can then be invested to earn more than the discount offered. Any unused portion would of course be refunded, if the student drops out or graduates early.

Pricing a college education like a magazine subscription may seem overly simplistic, but there’s a reason it has worked for magazines. If the University of Oregon pioneers a model of price protection for its most conscientious students, that helps everyone. It also builds the brand.

A four-year fixed fee would give President Schill significant leverage to graduate more students within four years. It would reward students who stay focused and serious about their studies. Any student who decides to take a term off would return to campus paying whatever the newest incoming class is being charged. Likewise, a fifth year of undergraduate classes would be priced at the current going rate.

Accomplished adults may be able to budget four years ahead. Sophisticated financial planners can anticipate future price increases, based on recent trends. But high school students — especially those from Oregon’s working class — cannot be expected to have those skills.

Our university’s trustees must focus on the future of the institution, but the future of the state itself cannot be separated from that. Nothing enhances Oregon’s future prospects more than helping the state’s first-generation college students graduate on time, with as little debt as possible, from the University of Oregon.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.