Oregon lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow the state’s community colleges to merge with its four-year public higher education institutions.
A community college and public university that want to consolidate would need to submit a plan to the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission that includes a timeline for the change and a description of its effects on the institutions’ finances, employees, students and programs.
Other states have mulled mergers in recent months as the pandemic ravages institutional and state budgets.
The bill is sponsored by Peter Courtney, Oregon Senate’s president, though his previous attempts to greenlight the mergers have been unsuccessful.
Campus leaders have been skeptical that consolidations would help correct their campuses’ financial woes, a sentiment that was echoed during a virtual hearing on the bill Monday.
The two presidents of four-year colleges who testified during the hearing did not take a position on the bill, however.
Tom Insko, president of Eastern Oregon University, said he wasn’t sure a merger would solve the “numerous issues” facing the institution.
“I do, however, believe it is our responsibility to evaluate and clearly understand if there are opportunities to do better and not let old paradigms and structures hamper our ability to accomplish extraordinary outcomes for current and prospective students,” Insko said during the hearing.
The Oregon Community College Association said in an emailed statement it has no stance on the bill. However, it believes the state could accomplish much of what the bill intends “with fewer structural hurdles.”
“OCCA fully supports Senator Courtney’s goal of creating a seamless system that works for all students,” the statement reads.
Courtney, a Democrat, argued during the meeting that integrating colleges would help smooth transfer pathways and save students money. He stressed the bill’s voluntary nature, with the institutions initiating the mergers.
State Sen. Michael Dembrow, chair of the Senate’s education committee, questioned some of the plan’s details, such as how the state could successfully bring together two disparate institutions’ funding streams and governance structures. Dembrow also said there would be some fear that the four-year school would overtake the community college in a merger. But these specifics could be ironed out, Dembrow said.
A memo on college mergers prepared by the coordinating commission points out there are ways to consolidate operations other than the full mergers the bill envisions. Institutions could seek singular accreditation, as was attempted among the three universities in the Alaska system, it notes.
The document also references the aggressive, and sometimes unpopular, consolidations in Georgia. The state’s public college system said it saved $30 million by reducing its institution count from 35 to 26, though that is barely a fraction of its $9.4 billion fiscal year 2021 budget.