The Oregon Commitment to student access and success

November 10, 2015

Welcome everyone.

The students we just heard from in this video—they are the reason we are all gathered here today. They represent the University of Oregon’s commitment to access and success. These students are part of the University of Oregon’s innovative PathwayOregon program. Thanks to Pathway, this year more than 700 incoming freshman from Oregon who are eligible to receive Federal Pell Grants—any amount of Pell Grant—have every penny of their UO tuition and fees covered.

And as they earn their degrees, dedicated academic advisors and tutors are at their side, providing support and guidance, cheering them on to graduation. Pathway has benefited more than 3,800 students since its inception in 2008. This groundbreaking program has been heralded by national education leaders and has helped boost the four-year graduation rate for Pell Grant-eligible students at the UO by 13 percentage points. That is real access. That is real success.

Today we are here to celebrate the accomplishments of PathwayOregon. We are here to celebrate—but also to say that is not enough. Too many students are still left on the education sidelines. We must do much more to open our doors to more students from every walk of life, keep those doors open, and create paths to on-time graduation and successful careers.

But let me back up here for a moment. I want to tell you why fulfilling the promise of access and success is critically important to me, our students, the university, and to society.

For the past few months, I’ve been all across this campus, state, and nation—meeting with our faculty, students, alumni, and friends—talking about my three objectives for this university. They are fundamental to our mission as Oregon’s preeminent research university and our aspirations to become one of the nation’s greatest public research universities.

  • We must ensure student access and affordability.
  • We must build our academic programs through aggressive faculty hiring and investments in research.
  • We must deliver a rich and diverse experience for students both inside and outside the classroom.

As I’ve spoken to hundreds of people with an interest in the UO about these goals—from new freshmen to long-time advocates—one consistent theme has emerged: transformation. People have told me, everywhere I go, that earning a degree here transformed their lives. You just heard those students talk about that magic moment when they opened their PathwayOregon letter and recognized that their lives were changing for the better. Attending college, for so many people, is the turning point that creates opportunity, prosperity, and lifelong fulfillment.

The Value of Earning a Degree

We know this to be true, not just from what people tell me. Research bears it out. For all our nation’s handwringing about the return on investment from college, the undisputable facts are that graduating from college is the single best path in the pursuit of a lifetime of success and happiness.

People who earn bachelor’s degrees earn far more than their non-college-going peers. In fact, they earn 1.6 times more in their lifetimes—that’s $1 million more on average—than someone with only a high school diploma. And with more education, the earnings rise and double to $2 million or more. Study after study shows college graduates are in general happier, healthier, and more engaged in their communities.

Those individual benefits also extend to our society as a whole, creating lower unemployment rates, greater volunteerism and civic involvement, as well as jobs and innovation from research, discovery, and knowledge creation. At the peak of America’s unemployment following the most recent recession, when 10 percent of American adults over the age of 25 were jobless, only five percent of college-educated adults were out of work.

As a public institution of higher education, it is the heart of our mission to provide access to the citizens of the state. The opportunity to work with students is what inspires many of us to teach and do research at great institutions like the UO. Keeping our doors wide open to all the best and brightest in our state, and best and brightest from around the world, benefits each of us, our university, our community, and our nation.

I can say with certainty that I personally was transformed by higher education. When I was a little boy growing up in Schenectady, New York, my father would put me on his knee and tell me I would attend a great university. That was a bold vision for a man whose own father died when he was five years old and who had to go to work to support his widowed mother and younger sister. With my folks’ support, a little luck, some loans, and a lot of scholarship assistance, I became a first-generation college student.

But I have to admit, I felt like a duck out of water at Princeton University. It was initially quite difficult and felt foreign to me as I struggled to fit in. But in time I found my place, and attending college lifted a curtain for me, and helped me see the world in a whole new way. College gave me the framework, the knowledge and curiosity, to pursue my Yale law degree, become an attorney, professor and dean, and ultimately your president.

The personal and societal benefits of college are well documented, but many Oregonians who wish to attend college do not. Less than one third of Oregon’s adults have earned a college degree. The proportion is even smaller among low-income, first-generation, and minority Oregonians. When first-generation students do attend college, less than one quarter nationally earn their way to a bachelor’s degree, compared to 68 percent of their non-first-generation college peers. That must change.

What is stopping Oregonians from punching their tickets to success and attending college and graduating?

All of the research shows there are four primary barriers: institutional, financial, academic, and social. If we are to keep our promise of access and success, we must address all four.

Before a student can come to the University of Oregon, she must obtain a good primary education. Yet, Oregon’s public schools are not making the grade. In 2014, the state ranked 46th out of the 50 states in K-12 graduation rates. And studies show that the low-income and minority students who do succeed and graduate from high school systematically underestimate their chances of getting into schools like the University of Oregon, and hence do not apply.

Another barrier to higher education for many students is its cost. This is a perceived hurdle that may trump all others, because many students may not even think of overcoming the academic and social challenges if they cannot afford to knock on the door.

Last week the Oregonian reported on a study that demonstrated that Oregon slashed per-student spending on higher education more than any but one other state in the union between 2000 and 2014.

In absolute terms, the state of Oregon ranks 47th out of the 50 states in per capita funding of higher education. Today, the UO gets only seven percent of its operating fund from the state. This reduction has dramatically changed who pays for the cost of higher education. As the state, under Measure Five and other pressures, slashed higher-ed funding, students and their parents started picking up more of the tab.

This graph of revenue sources over the last 20 years illustrates that shift. You can see as per-resident-student revenue from the state fell, the university relied more on tuition revenue, almost dollar for dollar. As the state paid less, students and their families paid more.

You may notice that this year there was a small but noticeable upturn. Through a lot of hard work, we are very pleased that our friends in Salem fought for us this year, and reinvested some money. We are dedicating a significant portion of that money to the initiatives I am going to discuss today.

But let me be clear. We cannot rely on the state to reverse what has happened over the past 15 years. Unless we change the fiscal structure of our state, when the next recession occurs—as it surely will—the situation could be substantially worsened.

As an institution, we must work hard to control our costs. But the fact remains, like other institutions of higher education, the largest portion of the university’s expenses comprises people—more than 80 percent. Our faculty and staff—you—are the lifeblood of the institution, and we need and value you. Personnel costs are unlikely to markedly decline, although we will need to take steps to become more efficient and achieve savings wherever we can.

If we are to provide the quality education that transforms lives and helps our society, we must expect that tuition will increase each year, just like the cost of milk, or shoes, or cars. But like this year, we will do what we can to keep these increases manageable.

But there is something we, as an institution, can do to help reverse the course of higher costs borne by our students. We can save many of our students thousands of dollars in unneeded expense by reducing the time it takes for them to graduate. At the University of Oregon, only half our students graduate in four years. Only 69 percent earn a degree by their sixth year in college.

Now to be clear, the UO has the best retention and graduate rates of all of Oregon’s public universities, but one doesn’t have to be a star performer at Hayward Field to observe that winning a slow race is not good enough.

The best strategy to reduce the cost of college is to ensure that more of our students graduate on time. Every quarter a student takes to graduate adds hundreds, even thousands of dollars to their college bill. Those extra two years to graduate can amount to more than $15,000 in extra tuition, fees, and books for an in-state student, more for out-of-state students. When we add in the lost job earnings that total jumps much higher.

Let me say that again. Somewhere between one half and one third of our students are incurring tens of thousands of dollars in increased costs because they cannot graduate in a timely fashion. Not to mention valuable time and energy lost. For the students who never graduate, who never earn a degree and have taken on debt, that is heartbreaking.

We know that not every student will graduate in four years. Students today face big challenges, and there are good reasons it takes longer for some. Indeed, a few of our professional programs, by design, take five years to complete. But when half our students don’t graduate in four years, we absolutely must, as an institution, examine why, and then we must tear those barriers down.

PathwayOregon is one of the programs that is helping remove barriers for lower-income and first-generation UO students. Thanks to Pathway we are closing the graduation gap—the gap between Pell-eligible students and their more affluent peers. Students in the Pathway program have four- and six-year graduation rates within two percentage points of non-Pell students. In just a few short years, this program increased the overall Pell student graduation rate by 40 percent.

I recently had lunch with some students to better understand what the PathwayOregon program meant to them. Most were first-generation college students, just like the majority of Pathway students. These students and I talked about the culture shock of going off to a big university, feeling a little out of place and a little homesick. They told me how the scholarship money changed their lives, how their advisors became friends and champions who helped them through the rough spots, and not just in the classroom.

One young woman, Sam—a senior now—still keeps in touch with her advisor even though her advisor retired last year. These students are so impassioned about the program, they now mentor younger students. Another young woman, Lupe, made a Spanish-language video to help spread the word. Pathway gave these students confidence and prepared them for success.

I want every student to feel that kind of confidence. And I am committed to doing more than just studying the issue or talking about why access is important. We must take action. Here is where the rubber meets the road. I am setting a goal to increase our graduation rate by at least 10 percentage points by 2020. This is the Oregon Commitment.

Today, I am announcing a series of new initiatives and investments totaling $17 million over five years to support this ambitious goal:

First—We will continue to support pipeline programs and efforts to improve the quality of K-12 education in the state. For example, programs like the Summer Academy to Inspire Learning (also known as SAIL), started by two UO faculty members, introduces low- and moderate-income students to the possibility of college. And the Oregon Young Scholars program provides middle- and high school students of color time on our campus to see themselves as college bound. We need to support SAIL, OYS, and other programs like them.

In addition, our College of Education is among the leading agents of change for successful interventions and pipeline programs in pre-K-12 schools. Our school’s innovations in learning are used by school systems in every state in the nation and internationally. For example, two recent research grants will allow our faculty to explore improving academic outcomes and post-secondary success for middle-school Latino students and high school girls in Oregon.

Second—We will expand scholarships and financial aid as part of our $2 billion fundraising campaign. Indeed, this year we received a spectacular $25 million gift from our Board of Trustees member Connie Ballmer and her husband Steve that allowed us to expand the PathwayOregon program by 30 percent. Two-thousand students—more than 10 percent of all our undergrads—are on our campus today, tuition covered and receiving advising, on the path to graduation, thanks to Pathway. Today, I am also announcing an additional $150,000-per-year investment of state resources for more advisors for the program.

And we will seek more philanthropy to grow additional need- and merit-based scholarships for the best, brightest, most diverse students from around the state and around the world.

We will work with our congressional delegation, who have fought hard for student aid on our behalf, to continue to advocate for Pell Grant funding that is so critical to PathwayOregon.

Third—We will immediately invest over $500,000 each year to reinvent our advising and tutoring programs with the singular objective of increasing student retention and timely graduation.

We already invest significant resources in various places throughout the university on advising—in each of the schools and colleges, the Office of Equity and Inclusion, the Undergraduate Studies office, and the Jaqua Center, to name a few. But these efforts are not enough, and they are not coordinated.

So, I have authorized the hiring of a “retention czar” and several additional undergraduate advisors. The Associate Vice Provost for Student Success will be tasked with achieving a 10-percentage-point increase in our graduation rate in five years, and will jointly report to the Provost and the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies. His or her job will be to coordinate our efforts throughout the university and to ensure that all students receive the academic counseling that they need and deserve.

We are also investing in a new data-analytics system that will help us to identify which students are at risk academically and financially, so that our new and existing advisors can step in, and connect them to tutors or other resources and support.

As part of our effort to promote timely graduation, I am enlisting the support of the University Senate and each of the deans. We must all join together to assess, on a department-by-department basis, what impediments exist to graduation—whether they be class schedules, curriculum, degree requirements—and reduce those barriers.

Fourth—Again, thanks to the state’s new investments in higher education this year, we will provide graduation completion grants to more than 100 juniors or seniors who are at the highest risk of dropping out for financial reasons. Starting this year we will provide financial aid totaling more than $1 million annually to at-risk students who need a bridge to graduation.

Fifth—We will hire more faculty; talented teachers and researchers who will help spark our students’ curiosity, challenge them to reach beyond their grasp, and inspire problem solving that will shape Oregon’s future. These faculty members will understand that four-year graduation is an institutional priority.

In addition, we will use this opportunity to promote racial, ethnic, sexual, and gender diversity that will make our community even richer than it is today and that will provide our students with the supportive environment that is so important to their success.

Sixth—We will continue to explore how we can incentivize on-time graduation through structural changes in our university. For example, the guaranteed tuition proposal that the Board of Trustees will consider shortly has elements designed to encourage students to graduate in a timely manner. I would also like us to consider in the coming years a way to establish tuition plateaus that will enable students to take additional courses at no cost or at a reduced cost.

Seventh—We are committed to expanding our successful student engagement programs, like Academic Residential Communities, First-Year Interest Groups, support for undergraduate research, study-abroad programs, and other co-curricular activities that provide the connections that help all students engage, thrive, and be more successful in college and after graduation. Social science literature is loud and clear on this subject—the more connected a student is outside of the classroom to the university, the more likely he or she is to graduate. They must be connected and feel respected, welcomed and included in a campus free from discrimination and harassment that celebrates a diversity of people, thought, and experience.

These are my commitments, seven in all, to keep our promise of student access and success. I am deeply thankful to Oregon legislators who advocated for additional money for many of these programs, to our congressional leaders who championed for federal student aid, and to our donors who endowed scholarships and faculty positions that will strengthen our efforts.

I would like to thank Lisa Freinkel, our Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies, and Scott Coltrane, our Provost, for their work in crafting our new retention and graduation efforts. And, of course, to all of the administrators, staff, and faculty who inspire our students and who will work with us in partnership to ensure that the promise of higher education is more than just a promise to our students.

This promise of access and success for all of our students—the Oregon Commitment—is one we must keep. The economic and civic vitality of our state and our nation depends on it. Students all across our campus must succeed.

As a preeminent public university, our commitment to them and to all of the other students of merit in this state is, in essence, an affirmation and a commitment we make to the future.

Thank you. It is an honor to serve as president of the University of Oregon.

To see a video of the Oregon Commitment to student access and success event click here.