Posted by: ericgrimsrud | August 30, 2013

Some thoughts concerning the Oregon tuition plan

An idea that originated in Oregon concerning the payment of student tuition in the public institutions of higher learning is now being widely considered throughout the USA.  The idea, sometimes called the “Pay It Back” plan, is essentially this. There would be no tuition charged to students while they are enrolled in their studies. Upon graduation, however, the students  would agree to pay their alma mater(s) about 3% of their salaries for about 25 years. The main driving force behind this plan is that the present system burdens too many of our young adults with a level of debt  that severely limits the options they can afford to consider upon graduation.

I happen to like the Oregon Plan not only for the reason described above but also for another that might be just as important. During my several decades of teaching everyone’s favorite subject (chemistry!) at several universities, I increasingly came to believe that the funding mechanism of our universities was fundamentally flawed and limited the quality of the services the universities provide to society. Let me explain.

Most public universities are now reimbursed for their expenses via the payment of tuition by the students and from state funds allotted to offset some of the students’  costs. The total amount the university then receives is determined primarily by a number called the “total student  credit hours” provided by that institution.  Another somewhat cynical term often used for this number is the “student body count”.  Keeping that body count as high as possible along with the development of its research enterprises are the main mechanisms by which the university attempts to maximize its income.

Therefore, as a university instructor, I was constantly reminded by my upper administrations of the paramount importance of the retention of existing students (the recruitment of new students was primary the responsibility of university outreach personnel). Of course, that retention message was always provided in a progressive and high-minded manner – that is, it is the teacher’s responsibility to ensure that  all students “find themselves” within the range of programs offered by the university. While advising students, however, it frequently occurred to me that many student might have been better off going home or somewhere in the public workforce until they had gained a better view of how the programs of the university could help them. In the many large introductory  courses I taught in General Chemistry, one of my favorite subsets of  students was the one  I called the “senior citizens” of the class –  a collection of 30-some-years olds who had come back to the university after they saw more clearly where they needed advanced education.

Universities are great “businesses” and the people that run them are smart enough to adjust to whatever funding mechanism they are provided. If the game continues to be a simple “body count”, they will continue to play that game very well – while simultaneously presenting a public image that is progressive and high-minded.  In order to provide a better investment for the public dollar, however, I think that most American universities are in need of no less than a basic “heart transplant” with respect to the way they are paid for their services. Adoption of the Oregon Plan would provide such a change.

Under this alternative plan, a major portion of total tuition payments to the university would be based on factors much more related to the overall quality and maturity of its graduates. While it would still be a “body count” of sorts, it would be one that would be heavily weighted by the collective abilities of each institution’s graduates to contribute to the society that paid for their educations.

Furthermore, I believe that the “retention at all costs” approach has contributed to several distinctly unfortunate outcomes within our public universities – including grade inflation, teaching to the test, dumbing-down of course content, and lowered expectations of student body performance.  In the process, it has been accompanied by the replacement of tenure-track and research-active faculty in the large entry level courses by part-time instructors. While most of the part-timers I knew were good-to-excellent teachers, they also knew very well that they had better have lots of happy students filling out those student evaluations forms at the completion of each course if they wanted to be retained the following year. Thus, the part-timers could not, in general, be as demanding of student self-motivation and performance as a tenured faculty member could be. This division of teaching duties has isolated the mainline tenure-track and research-active faculty who comprise the epicenter of each academic department from the bulk of students entering our large universities. As a result , these two groups of people do not get to know each other and  a great deal of talent goes undetected and underdeveloped.

Another outcome of our present emphasis on “retention at all costs” is a great expansion of administrative costs and personnel associated with the increasingly complex flow of students throughout ever-expanding sets of special programs. Thus, we now typically have a wide range of Vices, Assistant to the Vices, and Associates employed within each administrative office including those of the President, the Provost, the Deans, the Department Chairs and Student Services. Since the salaries associated with such positions are typically among the highest within the university system, funds are thereby displaced from student/teacher interactions where the quality of an institution’s graduates is determined.

All funding mechanisms, including the Oregon Plan, will raise new problems and will have downsides.  A very big one, for example, is how would a given state get an Oregon Plan off the ground when it would take several years before graduates were contributing to the system?  Nevertheless, I am sufficiently convinced of our present system’s deficiencies that I favor trying a plan that is totally different at its heart. Universities will continue to be successful businesses whatever financial game they are forced to play.  However,  it is also clear to me that these inevitable internal successes (everyone wants to go to the U, right?) could provide a much better return than they presently do for the enormous investments our state and country makes in higher education.


  1. Good food for thought. Web was one of those “senior citizens” at the U of Omaha after he got out of the Marine Corps. He often talks of the young, hung-over kids in his class, versus the older students, and the difference in the education that was acquired by each group.

    I think you are on to something!

  2. Your piece was very informative. I was under the false impression that the Oregon plan was for every university to find its own sugar daddy as Oregon did with Nike’s Phil Knight. Of course, universities already have an incentive to turn out a decent product as they get some of their money from alumni. But, the link isn’t very strong. Perhaps we should focus on lowering costs. That entails getting rid of much of the administration and putting courses like chemistry online to millions of students. Hey! They have started to do some of that.

    • Yo Ron the Surf,

      Thanks very much for your comments – but from one of them I am concerned that South Florida might already be under water!

      Lowering educational costs is indeed needed but doing that via online courses? Who then would be taking the test on the other end of that internet connection? Since the answer is “anyone you can find” to take that test for you, grades would be meaningless and the U would be giving up its function as an assessor of student abilities. Do we want to do that? Also, I have heard from on line teachers of small higher level courses that those teachers put more time into running them than they do in face to face classes. If true this would not lower costs.

      So thanks again, Ron, for your thoughts but please do think again. Might there be someone else in your family who would be able to help you with your future thoughts on this subject?

      In the meantime, keep an eye on those weather forecasts down there and keep your bags packed!

      All the Best, Eric

      • There will be many a twixt between the cup and lip foronline courses. But, that is the waveof the future as is exit testing at colleges. No longer will those cute coeds be able to persuade their professors tocontribute to grade inflation. Life willchange for most academics. We got the last of the good life. While your Oregon model does provided an added incentive foruniversities to prepare their students for gainful employment it would mainlyhelp keep the ancient beast alive. With theexception of the very top tier schools, those that are well endowed, the publiccan’t afford the nonsense inherit in that ancient model. Change the model! Stop protecting redundant faculty and work atgetting rid of layers of useless administrators. As for life in central Florida, I check the weather everyday waiting for those hurricanes to bring some waves. According to some of your colleagues we weresupposed to have had 7 named storms by now. There have been none. You may wantto check those models too. Ron the Surf

        [Response for EPG: Yo Ron,
        You make a good argument for dumping the existing U systems and going entirely to online education with credible exit exams. However, you have failed to include the most important driving force behind the existing university systems – that is, their athletic programs. Are you suggesting that these games be played online also – like Nintendo?
        Concerning your comment about the lack of hurricanes in Florida, you need to take advantage of those free online courses that you hold in such high regard. On the subject of climate change, you’ll find a really good one at In it you will learn that long term climate change is easy to predict while short term weather patterns are not. Eric ]

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