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Oregon Voters Nix Proposed Education Trust Fund

Oregon would have been the first state to set up an ongoing investment trust fund for higher education.

Oregon voters struck down an amendment to establish an investment trust fund that would have been the first such fund created by a state to help pay for higher education scholarships.

Dubbed the Opportunity Initiative, the proposal was defeated by 59 percent of voters.

The initiative attempted to tackle what many students across the country are facing – college is becoming increasingly unaffordable as costs skyrocket and the jobs recovery drags. Student-loan debt today totals $1.2 trillion, an amount that for the first time in history exceeds total national credit card debt. A recent U.S. Department of Education found that more than half of borrowers with the most common type of federal loan are unable to pay them back on time.

Proposed by State Treasurer Ted Wheeler, the program would have authorized the state to issue bonds for the purpose of starting up the investment fund, which would be used solely to pay for state scholarships. As much as $100 million in general obligation bonds could be issued to help start the endowment. The bond proceeds would be paid back through the state’s general fund (not from the endowment’s earnings).

“Measure 86 sparked a vibrant conversation about higher education in Oregon,” Wheeler said. “I am committed to continuing that conversation because we must do a better job of connecting Oregonians with the education and skills they need to compete in today’s economy.”

Conservatives had cautioned against the measure, arguing that Oregon taxpayers should not be saddled with debt for a product that is proving itself to be too expensive for many people. Additionally, Tom Lindsay, higher education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, speculated in a recent Forbes magazine op-ed that “Oregon’s universities, mindful of the new money that would become available, would be hard-pressed not to hike tuitions further.”

Addressing the unaffordability of college, Wheeler had argued that the Opportunity Initiative’s grants and scholarships had a workforce development tie-in so that recipients would put their degrees to use. The grants were to be focused on students in need who are pursuing degrees in science, engineering and technology, as well as individuals seeking vocational training or other workforce development programs. Wheeler also noted the fund could have potentially offered those needy students stability, as currently they have to reapply for their grant each school year. As few as one in five students who qualify for the state's Opportunity Grant actually receive aid.

Liz Farmer is a former GOVERNING fiscal policy writer.
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