Ever since the Cascades Campus of Oregon State University was founded in 2001 it's been treated like the ugly stepchild of the state higher education system - unwanted, undernourished and unloved.
Now, with the economy still tanking and a budget shortfall of more than $4 billion looming over the next two years, there are those in the state legislature who want to kick the stepchild out of the house. That would be a huge mistake, both now and in the long run.
Although so far it hasn't lived up to the early enrollment projections - in part because the state provided only half as much money for it as it originally promised - OSU-Cascades already is giving hundreds of Central and Eastern Oregon students a higher education opportunity they probably wouldn't have otherwise.
OSU-Cascades currently enrolls the equivalent of 300 full-time students. There's been a 117% increase in enrollment since the college's founding, and enrollment for the spring term is up 18% over the fall term. There are 200 students now at Central Oregon Community College who want to enter OSU-Cascades next fall to complete work toward their bachelor's degrees.
What's even more important, OSU-Cascades opens the higher education door to many people for whom distance and/or tuition costs would otherwise keep it barred. It costs half as much to complete a bachelor's degree at OSU-Cascades as to do it at OSU in Corvallis. According to President Becky Johnson, more than half of the students at OSU-Cascades are the first in their families to go to college.
Looking further down the road, everybody agrees that Central Oregon needs to develop a more diversified and sustainable economy, and OSU-Cascades could be the cornerstone of it. Employers who pay living-wage jobs don't locate in a place that doesn't have a well-educated workforce and doesn't offer education opportunities for their employees and their children.
Sen. Margaret Carter of Portland has made it no secret that she never wanted OSU-Cascades in the first place, and she's the leading advocate for killing it off. She argues that it's better to eliminate one of the state's eight campuses than to weaken all of them with drastic budget cuts.
That's a short-sighted attitude. Shutting down OSU-Cascades would save money now, but it would throw away a valuable investment. Central Oregon already is a major population center, and when the recession eases it will be growing again. Sooner or later the state higher ed system will need a four-year institution here. Why not build on what's here now instead of tearing it down and having to rebuild from scratch later?
Central Oregon's legislative delegation - Sen. Chris Telfer and Reps. Gene Whisnant and Judy Stiegler - are fighting hard for the survival of OSU-Cascades, along with State Treasurer Ben Westlund. We hope they'll be able to persuade their colleagues to use a scalpel to make budget cuts equitably among the state's colleges instead of using the guillotine on OSU-Cascades - a drastic move that would hurt Central Oregon now, and the entire state in the end.