Gottfredson, Wheeler meet with students on new aid plan

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Gottfredson (right) and Treasurer Wheeler met with students on a new aid plan
Gottfredson (right) and Treasurer Wheeler met with students on a new aid plan

With the cost of a college education in Oregon rising rapidly, State Treasurer Ted Wheeler is proposing a new way to bring stability to student financial assistance.

Wheeler and University of Oregon President Michael Gottfredson on Tuesday introduced that plan to local students during a discussion in the UO Knight Library, hoping to raise support for a proposal that must be approved by the Legislature and eventually Oregon voters.

Wheeler presented his "Opportunity Initiative," which would address a postsecondary "needs gap" by creating a constitutionally dedicated fund that would be invested to finance student assistance.

Under the initiative, general obligation bonds to create the fund would be issued in 2014; subsequent issues would be made each year until the fund reaches its goal of producing revenue needed to fully fund the unmet needs of every Oregon student for two years of their post-secondary education.

The fund’s investment returns would generate revenue that will be dedicated to student assistance. The plan anticipates an issue of $500 million in the coming biennium and smaller and declining contributions over the next 30 years.

“At its core, the goal is to make higher education more accessible and more affordable to Oregonians,” Wheeler told the group, which assembled in the Paulson Reading Room.

From the 2004-05 to 2011-12 academic years, the average Oregon university tuition climbed two-and-a-half times faster than per capita income.

As budgets ebb and flow, universities in Oregon and across the nation struggle to provide students with stable financial aid, Gottfredson said, adding that the “stable, permanent fund” envisioned under the initiative would address that.

The initiative would create a permanent fund to augment financial assistance for Oregon students and universities, community colleges and vocational training programs. It has been introduced for the 2013 Legislative session as Senate Bill 11 and Senate Joint Resolution 1.

To maximize the initiative’s impact, the administrators of the program would be asked to design incentives for critical degree programs in science and technology fields, vocational training and other workforce development programs and on-time graduation, thereby reducing facility needs and student debt.

Attendees at the meeting included Ann Bunnenberg, president and co-founder of Electrical Geodesics, Inc. and a member of the Oregon Innovation Council, UO Financial Aid Director Jim Brooks and students from the UO and LCC who are recipients of Oregon Opportunity grants that would be funded by the initiative.

Students spoke in turn about the importance of the grant in enabling them to attend LCC and the UO, and some of them promised to rally support for the initiative locally and in Salem.

Naivasha Smith, a UO student, became emotional as she described what the grant has meant to her. “I got good grades in high school and the next step was college, but how was I going to pay for that?” she said. “You want to succeed, and it really is amazing to have such an opportunity (through the grant).”

Bunnenberg said one of the biggest barriers to creating, expanding and retaining businesses in Oregon is insecurity around whether the state can provide workers who bring the various skills needed for success.

“It’s critical to see students graduate with the skills that allow us to enrich the Oregon economy,” she said.

-- story and photo by Matt Cooper, Office of Strategic Communications