SALEM - Take a look at the legislative budget for the next two years and there's a lot missing. There's lost funding for elementary education, lost funding for foster parents, lost funding for the public safety system.

There are also sizable cuts to the higher education system. Enough, anyway, that students will see tuition increases of about 7 percent to 9 percent each year for the next two years.

But Oregon's regional campuses remain intact - most noticeably Oregon State University's Cascades Campus in Bend.

It was higher education's silver lining a few weeks back when the Legislature's chief budget writers released $2 billion in proposed cuts.

But it was a qualified victory, followed swiftly by some stark reality.

"We had to find some money so that we wouldn't cut OSU Cascades," said state Sen. Margaret Carter, one of the chief budget writers. "But I am still asking the question: Can Oregon continue to afford eight systems of higher education?"

It's a question, she said, that can't be ignored. Oregon, after all, supports eight systems despite a relatively small population of just 3.8 million people - 1 percent of the nation's total.

These past few months most of the attention was on the OSU Cascades Campus, where just 500 students were enrolled last year - less than 1 percent of all students enrolled in the Oregon University System.

In the end, the legislators were swayed to keep the campus by the hundreds of people who showed up at a budget meeting held in Bend as they were trying to decide what to cut.

But, Carter said, her question is less about any campus in particular and more about the system as a whole. Constant cutting will only dilute the system.

"I don't think that's fair to our students," she said. "If we are not creating an (environment) where our students are competitive ... then I have to again beg the question.

"This conversation comes up every session."

As supporters tell it, though, closing a campus is the worst thing the state could do for students and the economy.

For one thing, says Cascades Campus Dean Rebecca Johnson, losing her campus - or any other regional university - means educational access in Oregon drops significantly.

"It is hard for people who live in the (Willamette Valley) to understand the nature of being place bound in rural Oregon," she said. "The reality is there are just lots of people who simply cannot afford to move to Eugene, Corvallis or Portland to go to school."

About 70 percent of the Cascades Campus students are from Central Oregon. Coupled with the fact that half of those students are first-generation, it's a sound bet, Johnson said, that "a lot of times those students are, in fact, place bound."

Take Philip Shilts, a Southern Oregon University journalism senior. He started off at the University of Oregon, three hours away from home. After his first year of college, he hit some hard times.

His only option: Move back to Ashland, try out Southern.

"Moving down I was assuming that I was probably going to transfer back," he said. "I was going to try to get back on my feet. Save some money, take some classes.

"But I actually liked Southern a lot."

Until a few weeks ago, Shilts was on the board of directors for the Oregon Student Association. He said the regional campuses leaders are constantly thinking about how this downturn will affect them, how it might affect their tenuous rural network.

"We're understanding of the Legislature's situation," he said. But "investing in post-secondary education is probably our best way out of this."

Indeed, these regional hubs play their part in keeping eastern Oregon running, Johnson said.

"We hear from a lost of businesses that it's really important to have higher education in central Oregon," she said. "Higher education is one of the things that brings people out of poverty, back to the level where they are contributing. To deny them that access is really a backward way of developing the state."

Think of it this way, says Paul Kelly, president of the Oregon State Board of Higher Education: Eastern Oregon is roughly the size of Pennsylvania.

"If you think of Pennsylvania with a single public university in it, it strikes you as untenable."

Sure, there's a dramatic population difference. But to leave that area with one less campus, one less economic booster, one less point of access is anything but ideal, he said.

"Put aside what students or potential students lose," Kelly said. "Oregonians face loss of jobs on two levels."

Without an educated work force, companies will recruit from outside the state. And without the universities, revenues go down and more cuts are almost certain.

"It becomes a cyclical spiral downward," Kelly said. "At this point I think there's a presumption that we need those eight campuses."

If that remains true, something will have to give. Oregon traditionally underfunds its higher education system. Even huge gains made in 2007 only brought the system back to funding levels seen in 1990.

"I don't see a significant change in the state's level of support unless something more dramatic is done in terms of revenue structuring in the state generally," Kelly said.

Whether that means a sales tax or some other revenue increase, Carter's not sure. She's not even sure Oregonians are ready to approve $800 million in new taxes to stave off further cuts this go around to say nothing of the future.

"We're gonna have to do something that is going to change our revenue base," Carter said. But "I know in these hard economic times, (Oregonians) are not ready to talk about this yet."

But she'll keep begging the question.

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