New, Powerful Body Could Take Over Higher Ed Management in Oregon

The public higher education system in Oregon is about to be reorganized with control over public universities, community colleges and financial aid being passed over into the hands of the powerful new Higher Education Coordinating Commission. The mechanism to do this is written into House Bill 3120 — submitted by Governor John Kitzhaber and his education adviser Ben Cannon — which is currently being debated in the House Higher Education Committee.

The aim of the measure is to remove control over higher education from at least four bodies currently responsible for it, including the state Legislature. Instead, HECC will be totally in control not only of coordinating how the Oregon public colleges and universities work, but also how they're funded.

Architects of the plan, Gov. John Kitzhaber chief among them, say having a single board look out for the interests of students and the state will lead to better results at lower costs. Only about 40 percent of Oregonians earn college credentials, a figure Kitzhaber and the Legislature say needs to double by 2025.

Unlike a plan Kitzhaber announced last fall, this one wouldn't create a single Department of Post-Secondary Education to help the HECC exercise its new powers. Instead, HECC would oversee three existing agencies — the Department of Community Colleges and Workforce Development, the chancellor's office and the office of student assistance.

If the bill is approved, this will be the last time the lawmakers get a say over how to allocate the state's higher education budget – for example, how much will go to four-year rather than two-year schools and community colleges. They will also no longer decide which portion of the budget to put towards state-sponsored financial aid. In case of passage, all such decisions will be made by HECC starting next year.

It is a quirk of the lawmaking process that an organization called Higher Education Coordinating Commission already exists in the state – created in 2012. However, that body doesn't have either the funds to hire employees nor a real brief. Its function will be completely remade with the passage of 3120.

HECC would also hire a paid executive director, another new education position in Oregon after the creation of the chief education officer (now held by Rudy Crew) to oversee education from preschool through college and an appointed deputy superintendent of instruction (now held by Rob Saxton) to run the Oregon Department of Education and oversee preschool and K-12 education.

The point of creating an all powerful HECC is to "make a lot more sense of this higher education soup" of multiple, sometimes-overlapping boards and commissions, Cannon said.

04 15, 2013
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