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Higher education gets a new leader

Oregon Coordinating Commission becomes central authority

Oregon’s higher education system will consolidate decision-making power into one commission in a reinvention that aims to curb bloated government bureaucracy.

The Higher Education Coordinating Commission, known as HECC, have a much broader range of powers later this year as HB 3120 recharts the commission’s authority.

The HECC will become Oregon’s central organization that handles higher education. It will authorize degrees, approve new academic programs, allocate resources to universities and community colleges like UCC, and carry out many other responsibilities currently handled by a variety of panels.

This revamped commission will consist of nine voting members, five of which represent each congressional district in the state. The commission will also be comprised of 5 non-voting advisory members: a college student, university student, college faculty, university faculty and non-faculty staff member.

Several educational boards will soon report into the HECC, including the Department of Community Colleges and Workforce Development and the State Board of Education. These two boards are the current authority for governing community colleges and their budgetary process. The Oregon Student Assistance Commission will be abolished, but the remaining staff will continue as the Office of Student Access and Completion.

According to Robynne Wilgus, executive assistant to UCC’s president and board, these changes are expected to be unnoticed in how the college coordinates with the state.

However, the college may soon see new policies and priorities flowing in from the state level that may improve students’ experiences.

Ben Cannon, executive director of the HECC, will work to implement a number of policies throughout the state that will streamline the educational process.

“[Some community college courses] don’t match the requirements of the major of the program they are trying to complete at a four-year university,” Cannon said via telephone. The HECC is expected to work on optimizing coordination between community colleges and universities in order to make sure students’ hard work is rewarded

Cannon also said that there will be an increased attempt to have students tap into Federal Pell Grant money because 20 percent of Oregon’s eligible higher education students are not taking full advantage of these funds, and these students are missing out on an estimated $80 million of available federal money.

HECC is also seeking to meet the state’s 40-40-20 goal that increases the level of education for Oregonians. The 40-40-20 goal is that a minimum of 40 percent of all Oregonians will have a bachelor’s degree or higher, 40 percent will earn an associate degree or a meaningful certificate, and only a remaining 20 percent or less will lack college experience.

Achieving a 100 percent high school graduation rate and high levels of post-secondary education is ambitious, but it will take a lot of ambition to restore the state’s higher education system to its former glory.

While there is no apparent harm in attempting to make the transfer to a university smooth and painless and increase available resources to students, irresponsible changes to policies could create undesired side-effects.

For example, the HECC is slated to develop a new formula for distributing higher education resources—one which will include judging student outcomes.

An immense concern with funding institutions based on student outcomes is that it could allow for the possibility of a downward spiral effect. Colleges with students who do poorly could receive fewer resources, causing students to do even worse. This could lead to colleges targeting exceptional students in order to raise their performance ratings or risk collapse. It could also add to grade inflation because institutions will want to give as many A’s as possible to students in order to capture the most funding.

Some of these concerns are noted by Cannon.

“We certainly don’t want to be creating a system where we put an institution out of business,” Cannon said. “We would have to be really careful to avoid unintended consequences.”

It is up to Oregonians to keep HECC’s power in check. According to Cannon, the HECC will gain no new additional powers; it will only inherit the powers and responsibilities from the existing boards. Regardless, citizens must be especially vigilant to keep a close eye on higher education both now and come July 1 when this shift in authority comes into full effect.