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Western Oregon University to raise tuition, rejecting recommendation to freeze rate

Western Oregon University
Rob Manning
Western Oregon University

The board of trustees at Western Oregon University has decided to raise tuition for in-state undergraduate students by just more than 2%, going against an initial recommendation by a university committee to freeze tuition for that group of students. With the decision, WOU is the last of Oregon’s public universities to set tuition rates for the upcoming academic year.

The university’s Tuition and Fee Advisory Committee, a group made up of various members of the campus community, was unanimous in its decision to recommend no increase for in-state undergraduate students. According to documents provided in the board meeting, the committee felt that a tuition increase might result in current students leaving the university.

But, the WOU trustees felt not implementing any sort of tuition increase would be detrimental to the university’s bottom line. Like other institutions in the state, WOU is grappling with balancing its budget during the pandemic.

According to data included in its Wednesday board meeting materials, the university’s fall term applications are currently down 24% from previous years. The number of admitted students for the fall term is on track to be down 13%.

Ana Karaman, WOU vice president of finance and administration, said that entering the current year, the university anticipated as much as a $6.5 million deficit. With federal one-time coronavirus funds and other mitigating factors, currently, Karaman said, the university is anticipating an operating deficit of about $1.3 million.

“If we go with the 0% [tuition] increase … combined with the 10% enrollment decline, which is a worst-case scenario, currently we’re anticipating that, structurally, we’ll be back to that $6 million,” Karaman said. “So this is a $6 million deficit that we will continue to face.”

When considering tuition rates for the coming year, the WOU Tuition and Fee Advisory Committee initially examined increases of up to 4.89% — which would have brought in an estimated $1.2 million in revenue.

“Even the highest rate we could impose wouldn’t generate enough income to cover that deficit,” said Trustee Cec Koontz, who is also chair of the university’s Finance and Administration Committee.

Oregon public university boards have authority to set tuition at any rate they deem fit, so long as the increase is 5% or less. If it’s above 5%, the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission must approve the increase.

Landing on a 2.17% resident undergraduate tuition increase would at least bring the university near the rate of inflation, trustees said.

The university said the increase would charge an additional $180 of an in-state undergraduate student taking 45 credits per academic year at Western’s Monmouth and Salem campuses.

Resident undergraduates this year are paying $8,280 annually, if they take 15 credits per term and no classes in the summer — and excluding room and board or other fees. In-state tuition will increase to $8,460 next academic year.

N.J. Johnson, WOU’s student government president and a member of the Tuition and Fee Advisory Committee, noted that the advisory committee surveyed more than 800 students about potential tuition increases. The majority of students, more than 600, said they would be most supportive of no increase.

About 70% of the students surveyed ranked affordability as their number one priority for the next school year.

“I know it’d be easy to look at these results and say, ‘Oh, of course, they picked the 0% tuition increase,’” Johnson said, but he also noted that last budget cycle — prior to the pandemic — surveyed students were actually willing to pay higher tuition increase rates.

“We need to start looking at supporting higher education institutions and funding in an alternative way,” Johnson said. “It seems every year enrollment goes down, we increase tuition, and then enrollment goes down even more, and then we increase tuition again. It seems to me that now is the time to do something about this cycle.”

Trustees said that, in relation to the other public universities in the state, Western Oregon University is still comparatively affordable. The 2.17% increase for resident undergraduates at WOU is the smallest increase among public universities in the state, except for Eastern Oregon University — which chose to freeze tuition for continuing undergrads.

“Western Oregon has routinely had the lowest year-to-year tuition increases during my time here, which demonstrates our commitment to accessibility to higher education for Oregon students,” WOU President Rex Fuller said in a statement Wednesday. “The past year has been very turbulent for our students and their families because of the pandemic. Keeping our tuition low remains important as we come back together again in the fall.”

Fuller is retiring this year. That’s another argument for attempting to reel in the budget deficit, Board Chair Betty Komp said.

“Put a new president in these shoes,” Komp said. “How many people — even if we do a nationwide search — how many people are we going to get to apply for a position where we’re in the deficit?”

In-state undergraduates aren’t the only ones seeing a tuition hike. Out-of-state undergraduate students will see a nearly 3% increase in tuition for the upcoming school year; and graduate students, regardless of residency, will see an increase of just more than 3%.

“Obviously a tough decision, but we’ve got to pay the bills so the lights stay on,” Komp said.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Meerah Powell