What failed in Oregon could succeed elsewhere

By Simon Brown / Columnist

Last Tuesday, as each hour after 8 p.m. brought more Republican congressional victories and more disappointed Democratic sighs — at least, everywhere outside Pennsylvania — one vote went almost entirely unnoticed by the nation. Though it didn’t attract the hours of tedious statistical analysis or political commentary, the defeat of Oregon’s Measure 86 squashed the possibility for a replicable and successful model of state-level higher education funding.

Ballot measures never receive the same publicity as elections, perhaps because they can’t be personally criticized in mudslinging advertisements and are not subject to the dreaded “October Surprise.” Still, Measure 86 didn’t even prove the most popular ballot measure in Oregon. The state received far more media coverage for its strong support for the legalization of recreational marijuana use than it did for its disinterest in reformed higher educational funding. Perhaps college students were too overjoyed by the former to realize their legislative loss with the defeat of the latter. 

The contentious ballot measure would have altered the Oregon constitution to allow the state government to sell bonds to raise capital, the return on which would be invested in programs to give direct financial assistance to students pursuing post-secondary education. The earnings on the fund would go directly to student assistance, without the approval or appropriation of the Oregon state legislature. The measure’s wording did not stipulate the specific distribution of goods: to students or to institutions, in-state or out-of-state, public or private. 

Supporters cited two parallel trends that necessitated such a policy. The first was the accelerating proportion of jobs in the state and the nation that demand college-level education. This incentivizes the state to open access to universities. The second was the consistently rising cost of higher education at the state and national levels. 

Unfortunately, these nationally ubiquitous arguments could not persuade the 58 percent of Oregonian voters who responded with a resounding “no.” 

Even if Oregon voters could not see the merit in the proposal, other states can. As twentieth century Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, states have historically functioned as “laboratories for democracy,” insofar as they enact policies that could be replicated across the country if successful and dismissed if unsuccessful. But if one laboratory isn’t willing to conduct an experiment for fear of failure, that only means it is more imperative that a different one take up the challenge. 

Although the conditions cited could be mustered in support of any legislation increasing finances for college access, the unique funding mechanism in Measure 86 recommends it to many states struggling with mercurial higher education funding through legislatures. Specifically, the constitutional guarantee on a particular proportion of the fund apportioned to students improves upon a system whereby the dominant political party at the time determines students’ access to higher education. 

In Pennsylvania, we have borne the consequences of entirely unpredictable budgetary allocations from Harrisburg for public and state-related universities. Universities have to consistently lobby for more funding, and the governor’s response varies depending on his own popularity. Soon-to-be-former-Gov. Corbett, for instance, drastically slashed funds to state-related universities, including Pitt, in his first year, only to incrementally increase the allotment as he recognized a backlash of public opinion. In the meantime, universities cannot project their own budgets until the state makes its final decision.

If more state support, either to students or to institutions, could bypass the political ebbs and flows of legislature, then students could be more confident of the possibility of attending a university, and universities could be more confident in their plans for future spending. 

Pennsylvania stands to benefit from a constitutional amendment in the spirit of Oregon’s Measure 86. We are lucky to receive a new governor more avowedly dedicated to higher education, but in four years, we may not. Therein lies the problem. 

Write to Simon at [email protected].