Fiscal Follies: Oregon’s Public Universities Embrace In-State Tuition for Nation’s Indian Tribes

Trying to correct for injustice can be well-intentioned, but an effort by Oregon’s public universities shows how an altruistic effort can go terribly wrong and undermine confidence in formerly trusted institutions.

It’s frustrating to see Oregons well-regarded universities go blindly down this counterproductive path. There will be a cost to this need to feel enlightened. After all, there is no free lunch.

With no public debate in advance of their decision, the presidents of all but one of Oregon’s public universities, convinced of their moral superiority and apparently blind to the financial implications of their decisions, have decided to institute in-state tuition for enrolled members of Indian tribes.

Not just members of tribes with strong ties to Oregon, but millions of enrolled members of all 574 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes spread across the entire United States. 

Hall of Tribal Nations, Bureau of Indian Affairs

Some other states offer tuition benefits to members of tribes with specific connections to the state, but Oregon’s public universities are the only ones to go national with an in-state tuition policy that does not require any tribal connection to the state to qualify. 

Portland State University (PSU) started the ball rolling. On July 21, 2022, it announced that, beginning with the fall 2022 academic term, PSU enrolled, degree-seeking undergraduate students who are registered members of any one of the federally recognized tribes in the United States would qualify to pay in-state tuition rates.

Undergraduate in-state tuition and fees at PSU for the 2022-23 academic year total $10,806. Non-resident tuition and fees total $29,706, a $18,900 difference in revenue to the school per student. Differences between resident and non-resident tuition and fees at other public Oregon universities are similarly wide.

“This offer of in-state tuition is a small way to honor the legacy of Indigenous nations from across the country,” Chuck Knepfle, PSU’s vice president of enrollment management, said in a statement.

It is not, however, a costless gesture.

PSU is struggling to maintain affordability with rising costs and limited revenue and said it made the decision without knowing how many current or potential students might take advantage of the policy or what its potential financial impact might be. “We do not currently collect tribal information for our students so we don’t know how many will qualify,” said Christina Dyrness Williams, PSU’s Director, Strategic Communications. 

PSU rationalized the nationwide expansion of the in-state tuition policy by tying it to the university’s commitment to “diversity, equity, and inclusion.”  

In a spasm of guilt run amok and willful blindness on the costs, the resident tuition policy spread to Oregon’s other public universities like a contagion. 

On August 3, Oregon State University (OSU) said it, too, would initiate in-state tuition for enrolled members of all federally recognized Indian tribes in the United States, including currently enrolled students, no matter where they live. 

“Tribal citizens from throughout Oregon and the country represent multiple sovereign nations and are valued, contributing members of the OSU community,” said Becky Johnson, OSU’s interim president. “This new tuition policy advances our commitment – in the spirit of self-reflection, learning, reconciliation and partnership – that the university will be of enduring benefit to Tribal nations and their citizens throughout Oregon and the country.”

Steve Clark, OSU’s Vice President for University Relations and Marketing, said the school had 174 students enrolled last fall who indicated they were of Native American/Alaska Native heritage. Most were Oregon residents, but the school didn’t know who among them were enrolled members of federally recognized tribal nations. Approximately 10 currently enrolled non-resident students may qualify for the benefits of the new policy, should they apply for it, Clark said. 

Clark said OSU doesn’t believe the number of new out-of-state tribal students that will enroll in future years because of the new tuition policy will be large.

Like lemmings leaping over a cliff, other public universities dutifully followed, with little evidence of doubt or serious debate.

Next up on the resident tuition bandwagon was Southern Oregon University (SOU) in Ashland. Tuition and fee revenue at SOU per full-time student in FY2021 was about $26,000 for non-residents versus about $9,000 for resident students. 

SOU took the tribal tuition step even though it is dealing with growing deficits. University president Rick Bailey told faculty and staff in September that the school is facing a nearly $5 million deficit in the 2022-23 school year, a $13 million deficit in three years and a $14 million gap in four years. 

The Oregon Institute of Technology (OIT) signed on to the new policy because “Oregon Tech has been furthered by tribal culture and heritage and from the tribal lands on which our campuses reside,” said OIT’s President Nagi Naganathan. 

The herd mentality of in-state tuition reparations continued with Western Oregon University (WOU) following suit. “Boarding schools and then colleges and universities were built on Native American homelands,” WOU’s president Jesse Peters said. “The educational system itself was often implemented as a tool used to destroy indigenous languages, communities, and cultures.”

Eastern Oregon University (EOU) also joined in, even while admitting ongoing financial struggles with rising expenses and inflation. “This is another demonstration of EOU’s commitment to ensuring a welcoming environment for all students, while prioritizing a commitment to inclusion, diversity, equity and belonging,” said Genesis Meaderds, EOU’s Director of Admissions.

The only one of Oregon’s public universities not to fully embrace the groupthink is the University of Oregon (UO). 

Documents obtained through a public records request show that UO resisted early on offering resident tuition for non-residents of all 574 federally recognized tribes.

Instead, UO announced on Oct. 16 the launch of a Home Flight Scholars Program. Once state and federal options have been exhausted, the university will waive remaining tuition and fees for Oregon residents who are enrolled citizens of the 574 federally recognized Indian tribes.

“Our philosophy is that every college campus, public or private, in the US is on Indian land. We absolutely hope every university will take our lead,” said the school’s Native American and Indigenous Studies director Kirby Brown. “We feel every university has a responsibility to Indigenous students, being built on land that was forcibly taken from their tribes and used to benefit universities, counties and states who founded themselves on Indigenous resources.”

All this chest-beating beneficence is occurring against a backdrop of financial stress at Oregon’s public universities  

At a September meeting of PSU’s board of trustees, university leaders said early indications showed the school has still not bounced back from the pandemic’s hit to its enrollment. “The university is not going to meet its overall enrollment goal for the year,” PSU Finance and Administration Committee Chair Sheryl Manning told the board. Manning said student credit hours this fall are down 8 to 9% compared to the same period last year.

According to board documents, the university has lost roughly $18 million in gross tuition and fee revenue since the 2019-20 fiscal year.

“This trend in enrollment is certainly a call to action and requires a plan from management to address the future,” Manning said.

And this comes as Oregon’s public universities have been raising tuition on Oregon residents to keep up with inflation and rising expenses.

For example, PSU announced on April 21, 2022 that resident undergraduate tuition for the 2022-23 academic year would be $9,000 for students enrolled in 15 credits a quarter for three quarters, up from $8,685 for 2021-22. 

“Tuition is a necessity,” said PSU President Stephen Percy, bemoaning limited state support being behind tuition increases. “The state covers less than 35% of our education costs. We strive to be affordable, but we also must meet our obligation to deliver an outstanding experience to our students — in the classroom and outside it. That requires resources and the resource need increases each year.”

EOU’s Board of Trustees approved a 4.9% tuition increase for in-state undergraduate students for the current academic year. Even with the tuition increase, the school is anticipating a budget deficit of at least $2 million.

UO tuition rates for the 2022-23 academic year include a 4.5% increase over 2021-22 for incoming in-state freshmen.

It’s clear that while Oregon’s public universities plead with the legislature and alumni for more money, concern about revenue goes out the window when they want to do some virtue signaling.

Expanding resident tuition benefits to out-of-state tribal members means foregone revenue for increased services. Oregonians will have to cover the cost of this new non-resident benefit for tribal members across the country. And the amount of money resident students are expected to pay to cover full-time cost of attendance after all grant aid is accounted for is already high relative to other states.

The new tribal tuition policy also runs contrary to a recommendation in a scathing September 22, 2022 report commissioned by Oregon’s higher education leaders that Oregon’s public universities increase revenue from out-of-state students who can pay a premium to attend. 

The revenue from these students is “crucial… to Oregon’s universities’ bottom lines to counter rising educational costs,” the report says.

“It is critical to recognize that the additional dollars collected from nonresidents can be put to many uses,” the report, written by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS), said, “including by paying for the recruitment of those out-of-state students so that in-state resources are not used, helping support Oregon residents through targeted institutional aid or by relieving upward pressure on resident tuition prices, funding the development of new or expanded programmatic capacity in areas of state need, as well as other institutional priorities.”

The NCHEMS report noted that all of Oregon’s four-year institutions collect substantially more revenue from non-resident students than residents. 

Additional Tuition Revenue Collected from Non-Resident Students, FY 2021  

University of Oregon$169,804,003 
Oregon State University$106,873,533 
Portland State University$43,902,179 
Southern Oregon University$18,619,681 
Western Oregon University$12,862,228 
Oregon Institute of Technology$10,089,269 
Eastern Oregon University$7,500,363 

Notes: Data are annual for full-time first-time students enrolled in Fall 2020. Some data are suppressed to avoid violated state- mandated cell-size limitations. These data provide the amount of additional revenue nonresidents contribute than they would have had they been resident students. The “nonresident premium” is the additional revenue generated from each nonresident student. Source: HECC

The University of Oregon, for example, collects about three times as much revenue from non-residents as residents on average. 

“Overall, that additional funding (from non-residents) plays a crucial role in supporting the institutional mission,” the report said.

Tuition revenue from out-of-state students is particularly valuable, the report said, because Oregon has consistently expected its in-state students to bear more of the cost burden of public higher education than the nation as a whole, and a substantially larger share than its fellow Western states.

Then there’s the critical point that in adopting the new tribal tuition policy, a small group of like-minded academicians, acting with virtually no oversight, can push extreme policies. Believing themselves to be the defenders of the downtrodden, they have elevated one minority group above all others, magnifying differences in the misplaced pursuit of ethical purity.

It is all part of the rising trend of true believers viewing the world through an “identitarian lens,” Joanna Williams observed in City Journal earlier this year. “People are not seen as individuals, but as group members, with each group allotted a place in a hierarchy of privilege and oppression,” she wrote.

The problem with going down this route is that native Americans are hardly the only group that has felt the sting of oppression.The fact is other minorities in Oregon and across the country have suffered as well during morally toxic times, but Oregon’s universities have not extended resident tuition to them.

Oregon and the nation have a particularly sordid history of racism against Blacks.  The Oregon region’s provisional government forbid slavery in the 1840s, but it also banned Blacks from settling in the area. And when Oregon became a state in 1859, it was the only state admitted to the Union with an Exclusion Law in its constitution.

In the early 1900s, a resuscitated Ku Klux Klan had a strong presence in the state, claiming 35,000 active members in 1923.  As late as the 1940s some Portland businesses displayed signs saying they catered “to the white trade only”.

The Oregonian newspaper aided and abetted Oregon’s racism for many years. In October 2022, the paper published a lengthy apology for its “Racist Legacy” ever since its publication as a daily paper in 1861. 

“The now 161-year-old daily newspaper spent decades reinforcing the racial divide in a state founded as whites-only, fomenting the racism that people of color faced,” the paper said. 

“It excused lynching. It promoted segregation. It opposed equal rights for women and people of color. It celebrated laws to exclude Asian immigrants. It described Native Americans as uncivilized, saying their extermination might be needed…The seeds of such inequalities and many more were planted before statehood and in the years that followed by the white men who dominated Oregon’s positions of power, including its longest continuously published newspaper.”

2014 report by Portland State University and the Coalition of Communities of Color, a Portland non-profit, concluded Oregon has been slow to dismantle overtly racist policies. As a result, the report said, “African Americans in Multnomah County (which includes Portland) continue to live with the effects of racialized policies, practices, and decision-making.”

“I think that Portland has, in many ways, perfected neoliberal racism,” Walidah Imarisha, an African American educator and expert on black history in Oregon, told an Atlantic magazine writer in 2016.  “Yes, the city is politically progressive, she told the writer, but its government has facilitated the dominance of whites in business, housing, and culture. And white-supremacist sentiment is not uncommon in the state.” 

Oregon has an ugly history in its treatment of Jews as well. 

If The Oregonian’s researchers had gone back further to the 1850s when the paper was founded, they would have discovered another shameful record, the persistent anti-Semitism of its first editor, T.J. Dryer. 

“The Jews in Oregon, but more particularly in this city, have assumed an importance that no other sect has ever dared to assume in this country,” Dryer wrote in an Oct. 16, 1858 anti-Semitic screed posing as an editorial headlined “The Jews”.

“They have leagued together by uniting their entire numerical strength to control the ballot boxes at our elections,” Dryer wrote. “They have assumed to control the commercial interest of the whole country, by a secret combination, and the adoption of a system of mercantile pursuits which none but a Jew would ever pursue…They, as a nation or tribe, produce nothing, nor do nothing, unless they are the exclusive gainers thereby…What have the Jews done for the benefit of the American nation, for religion or morals , that they should with swaggering arrogance claim exclusive rights and privileges denied to all other sects and creeds”?

When Jews initially emigrated to Oregon’s frontier, racial stereotypes also prevented many of them from obtaining credit for their businesses, according to The Jews of Oregon, 1850-1950. The principal U.S. credit rating agency, R.G. Dun & Co, a forerunner of Dun & Bradstreet, specifically identified them as Jews in vitriolic reports and included offensive stereotypes such as referring to them as “untrustworthy.” 

One Jew, Aaron Meier, who migrated to Oregon in 1855 and was later a founder of Meier & Frank, a prominent retail business, was described as “shrewd, close, calculating and considered tricky.”

Anti-Semitism in Oregon stretched into the 20th century. The Tualatin County Club, which still exists in a suburb of Portland, was established in 1912 by a group of Jewish men because Jews weren’t allowed to play golf on other links. 

In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan opposed and disparaged Oregon Jews, painting them as predatory capitalists and dangerous radicals. Anti-Semitism was also evident in the professions. 

Despite the vile history of mistreating Jews and Blacks in Oregon, the state’s universities apparently feel no need to extend the tribal in-state tuition offer to them wherever they live in the United States.

And they shouldn’t. 

Not to them or to the members of all 574 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes.

A relentless academic focus on guilt-based compensation to various wronged groups in our increasingly diverse society is corrosive, divisive and nonsensical. It positions entire categories of people as victims.

Extending resident tuition to all the enrolled members of all 574 federally recognized Indian tribes in the entire United States is, quite simply, a mistake. 

It is nothing more than wrong-headed feel-good performative activism, all at the expense of Oregon resident students and Oregon taxpayers, and it needs to stop.

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