Steve Duin: The sustained mediocrity of Oregon's higher-ed system

The Oregonian
November 12, 2013By Steve Duin, Columnist

The problem, Duck fans, isn't that the ol' alma mater was steamrolled at Stanford last week.

The real tragedy is that the University of Oregon gets its academic butt kicked year after excruciating year by the University of North Carolina, not to mention a host of other far more stable and ambitious public schools.

As Scott Coltrane, UO's interim provost, reminded us last week, Oregon welcomes the comparison with the nation's best public universities, if that's what it takes to convince donors and (fat chance) Oregon legislators to step up their game.

I suspect UNC-Chapel Hill also enjoys the match-up.

Carolina's six-year graduation rate is 89 percent, Oregon's 66. UNC spends more than $86,000 per student -- in revenue generated by tuition, grants, the state's general fund and fund-raising campaigns -- compared to $29,532 by the University of Oregon,

And while student aid helps 63 percent of Carolina's students graduate debt free, only 47 percent of Duck grads enjoy that luxury.

The Tar Heels' edge is set in stone. More than 13 years ago, The Oregonian's Bill Graves wrote a series detailing the fruits of North Carolina's extensive investment in higher education. He described the crucial role local universities played in the 30-year transition from a tobacco-dependent economy to a high-tech magnet.

"Unlike Oregon," Graves wrote, "North Carolina's leaders have long recognized a connection between a high-quality university system and their state's character, culture and prosperity."

The title of the Graves' series? "Majoring in Mediocrity." And, no, that didn't refer to higher ed in North Carolina.

In 2013, the Oregon University System is now married to that mediocrity, as the metrics in Coltrane's "Benchmarking" report make clear. The OUS share of the general fund has fallen in the last 24 years from 15.3 percent to 4.8 percent, notes Mary C. King, a professor of economics at Portland State.

Yes, North Carolina has a much larger population to draw on -- 9.57 million compared to Oregon's 3.8 million, according to the 2010 census.

But in a state with a significantly lower household median income ($43,852 compared to a two-year average of $52,189 in Oregon), North Carolina spends $2.5 billion in general fund dollars each year on its university system.

Oregon? $390 million, after we fold in the lottery funds. Not enough to compete with the high fliers.

"I don't think the reason Oregon is so far behind North Carolina is economic; I think it's political," King says. "The Oregon Legislature has not prioritized funding higher education in the same way."

The Legislature is much more adept at spending money on prisons than the scholarship funds that keep Oregon's best students in state. It has not been inventive -- neither is Gov. John Kitzhaber -- in finding new ways to generate revenue. Its economic-development strategy -- even as local high-tech firms complain about the dearth of talent at Oregon's research universities -- is to throw tax breaks at wind farms, sneaker companies and semiconductor chip makers.

That last irony is not lost on Chuck Sheketoff, who keeps an Andy Grove poster above his desk at the Oregon Center for Public Policy. The image is an enlarged 1997 full-page ad from The New York Times, in which Intel's now-retired CEO describes his everlasting debt to City College of New York.

"He arrived here penniless, and it's a public university that made him who he is," Sheketoff says. "Yet Intel is the leader in the tech community when it comes to tax avoidance. This is a company that used to pay $50 million a year in Oregon taxes, and is likely today paying $150 or less."

A company, like too many others, that wants a highly educated work force, but doesn't want to pay the corporate taxes that maintain the halls of higher learning.

"We have lots of misplaced priorities," Sheketoff says. "Some of them are just more expensive than others."

Oregon's investment in higher-ed has been largely framed by Don McIntire and Bill Sizemore, North Carolina's by former Gov. James Hunt and a different set of visionaries.

"They are prioritizing their state revenues and tax breaks differently than we are," King notes. "They started early, and now they have an investment to build on.

"We aren't coming to terms with it."

Oregon's college students certainly are. As Di Saunders, the OUS director of communication, notes, the state is investing the same amount of general fund dollars in higher ed as it did 12 years ago, even though the seven schools have 34,000 more students than they did in 2001.

Only three states in the country, King adds, provide less than Oregon does to support each full-time student.

Unlike the campuses in La Grande, Monmouth and Ashland, the University of Oregon may prosper when the independent trustee boards take the field in 2014. When Salem is clueless about the connection between a great university system and an energetic economy, UO is far better off making its case to the world at large.

But it may be years before the Ducks can play on the same field as the Tar Heels. Especially -- and I know you're keeping score at home, Duck fans -- Carolina fields 28 varsity sports teams and Oregon scrapes by with 17.

Fair Use Policy