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State of Change

Kristine Hayes  |  March 8, 2019

I’VE LIVED in Oregon most of my life. When I was growing up, agriculture, logging and fishing were the state’s dominant industries. In the 1970s and 1980s, the economy began transitioning from one based on natural resources to one rooted in technology, travel and manufacturing. A few decades ago, companies like Weyerhaeuser and Georgia-Pacific were among the state’s leading employers. These days, Intel is the largest, keeping more than 20,000 Oregonians gainfully employed.

But it isn’t just Oregon’s private sector that’s seen plenty of change. There’s also been upheaval among the state’s colleges and universities—the world where I’ve made my living for the past three decades.

In 2018, Marylhurst University, a small, private, liberal arts college—located in one of Oregon’s wealthiest areas—abruptly closed. The school had struggled financially for years. Student enrollment, which peaked during the Great Recession, had steadily declined as the economy rebounded.

Other small colleges are also showing signs of financial fatigue. At the beginning of February, the Oregon College of Art and Craft announced it, too, would be closing its doors. The college reported a nearly $700,000 operating loss in its 2017 tax filings. Earlier this year, Concordia University, a private college located in the greater Portland area, announced it would be discontinuing six of its degree programs. Concordia officials announced the change as part of an ongoing effort to stabilize the school’s finances. The university had reported a $7.9 million operating loss in 2017.

Public universities in the state are dealing with declining enrollment numbers. In 2018, officials at Portland State University saw the number of students registering for classes on campus drop by nearly 3%. Several other in-state schools reported similar declines. With the average cost of tuition and fees at private colleges topping $32,000 per year—and public universities charging between $9,000 and $24,000 per year—it perhaps isn’t surprising that schools are finding it more difficult to attract students.

I suspect “degree inflation” is beginning to alter the way both employers and high school students view the value of a college degree. Employers may be beginning to realize college graduates aren’t necessarily prepared to fill the jobs they’re creating. Young people may be beginning to realize they aren’t necessarily prepared to take on a large amount of debt to fund an education that might not lead to a high-paying job.

Intel recently announced they’ll be expanding their computer chip manufacturing facilities located in Oregon. Jobs at the facility, including positions like manufacturing equipment technicians, require a high school diploma and a few months of relevant experience. Such experience can be obtained by participating in a school robotics club, shop class or a variety of extra-curricular activities. With an average salary of $45,000 per year, entry-level manufacturing technicians at Intel would be making about $10,000 a year more than the average high school graduate.

Indeed, not all higher education institutions in Oregon are struggling. Mt. Hood Community College recently announced the formation of a new partnership with Subaru. Students at the college can enroll in an automotive technician program—a two-year, degree-granting program that comes complete with an internship at a local Subaru dealership. A recent New York Times article noted such partnerships between car manufacturers and colleges are becoming more commonplace as dealerships look for innovative ways to fill a plethora of auto mechanic jobs.

Mt. Hood Community College estimates that students enrolled in the automotive technician program will spend a total of $17,000 for tuition, fees and books. Because the students earn a salary while completing the internship portion of their education, their overall cost for the two-year program will likely be significantly less than that. With experienced, top-level mechanics earning salaries of up to $100,000 per year, the program should create a cohort of college-educated adults who have far less debt—and much better employment prospects—than many other college graduates.

Kristine Hayes’s previous articles for HumbleDollar include A Better Trade, as well as her series of blogs about her 2018 home purchase: Heading Home (I), (II), (III), (IV) and (V). Kristine enjoys competitive pistol shooting and hanging out with her husband and her two corgis.

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