Alex Baumhardt

(Oregon Capital Chronicle) Several dozen college students gathered in Salem to voice their concerns about budget cuts to higher education.

The rally was one of at least three that took place at the Capitol throughout Thursday, and was organized by the student-run nonprofit Oregon Student Association. It opposes a proposal to cut the public university and community college budget for 2023-2025 by 2.5% compared with the current two-year budget.

There are more than 97,000 students in Oregon’s 17 community colleges and the state’s seven public universities. Legislators are considering a budget of $933 million for the state’s public universities and $764 million for the community colleges. The funding they need to continue operating at current levels is closer to $972 million and $779 million respectively.

Leaders from the public universities have told lawmakers that realistically they need more than $1 billion from the state for the next two years to keep up with inflation and to avoid program cuts, layoffs and more tuition hikes.

The higher education budget is being considered in the Education Subcommittee of the Joint Ways and Means Committee, which sets the budget.

Besides rallying outside the building, Nick Keough, the association’s legislative director, said the group met with 40 lawmakers to discuss the budget. “I’m optimistic that if there are additional funds after the May revenue forecast that they will go to higher education,” Keough said. The forecast will be released on May 17.

The students say cutting the budget would place more of a financial burden on students and families. On average, university tuition in Oregon covers 50% of costs – a significantly higher share than in most other states. It would also cause schools to cut student support services, staff and eliminate some programs, they said.

The students called on Gov. Tina Kotek and state legislators to ensure additional funding for several state financial aid grants, including the Oregon Opportunity Grant and the Student Tribal Grant. They want funding for the former to increase from $100 million to $400 million in the next biennium. It is the largest needs-based program the state funds.

Maryssa Reynoso, a senior at Oregon State University who was at the rally, said she would not be at the school without the Opportunity Grant. Still, she struggles to make ends meet.

“While it is incredibly helpful to get any funding and grants and scholarships, I am in so much debt – not just loans – but credit card debt just to meet my basic needs,” she said. “I just don’t think people realize how high tuition is, in addition to meeting your basic needs.”

All seven public universities have announced tuition increases for the upcoming school year.

None are above 5% which would require approval from the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission.

The students were joined by state Rep. Ricki Ruiz, D-Gresham, and Oregon State Treasurer Tobias Read.

Read told the students to meet with their local representatives about their needs.

“You can tell them that the chief investment officer for the state said there’s no better investment for the future of Oregon than higher education.”