CORVALLIS — Approaching the close of a 17-year tenure as Oregon State University’s president, Edward J. Ray this week called on the state of Oregon, the federal government and Oregonians to help address college students’ mental health and basic needs and reduce the tuition burden that students and their families pay for college.
In his annual State of the University address to more than 950 people at the Oregon Convention Center, Ray called for greater access and affordability for all students to enjoy the benefits of college. He also said today’s college students face many challenges to complete their degrees, and said that support for students beyond the classroom is imperative.
“Going forward, we must reduce the cost of a college degree for learners across the nation,” Ray said. “We must reverse a trend where public higher education nationally has literally abandoned people at the lower end of the economic spectrum and soon the middle class. And we must end a risk of privatizing public universities because of a growing dependence on tuition.
“Each of us should be very concerned by these prospects. We should work together to ensure that public higher education remains a public good for Oregon, a public good that deserves increased state and federal support.”
Ray said that over the past three decades, the cost of an education at an Oregon public university has grown and is now paid two-thirds by students and one-third by the state. That is a complete reversal of previous student burden and state support.
“According to a report last year by the national State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, the amount the state of Oregon paid in 2018 per full-time student – while adjusted for inflation – was only $5 more than in 2008,” Ray said. “Thankfully, the Oregon legislature increased its support in 2019. Yet, an increase of $262 per full-time student annually still means 31 states contribute more to educating college learners than does Oregon.
“Is this the level of support we want for Oregonians and the future of our state and nation?” he asked.
Ray also called on Oregonians to invest in all Oregon students enrolled from pre-kindergarten through college.
“Please accept your role in addressing Oregon’s funding needs for all levels of the education continuum,” he said. “The future is in each of our hands, and we need champions outside of higher education.”
Attendees saluted Ray with several standing ovations throughout the event. The Oregon State University Marching Band closed the event with a set of songs, including the Oregon State Fight Song.
Ray, who will step down as OSU’s president on June 30, said the university enjoys great momentum and is providing significant impact in Oregon, across the nation and globally. He also said OSU faces challenges and uncertainty, as well as opportunities and responsibilities. The university must continue to invest in and rethink ways to serve students of color, first-generation students and students with great financial need, Ray said. Oregon State also must address student mental health, particularly the crisis of anxiety and despair that is growing among young adults nationally.
Ray cited several steps the university has taken to address these needs. Student and faculty leaders collaborated with OSU counseling staff to add a syllabus statement for all courses that encourages students struggling with anxiety or depression to seek faculty support. The university has also implemented university-wide online mental health wellness training for faculty, staff and students.
In another step to support students, Ray announced that Thomas Toomey, an OSU graduate from the College of Business and an Oregon State University Foundation trustee, has established a $1 million endowed fund to address increased student needs such as food insecurity and emergency housing.
Last academic year, applications for food assistance at OSU rose 13% compared to the previous year, and OSU food pantry visits rose nearly 38% over the previous year. Nearly all of those applications and visits are from students.
“Thanks to the work of many, we are making headway in these areas, but there is much more work to do,” Ray said.
Public skepticism nationally about the value of higher education continues, Ray said, yet he noted that OSU graduates are faring well.
“According to a survey of OSU graduates just completed by ECONorthwest, 72% of those responding work in a field broadly related to their undergraduate degree,” Ray said. “And the annual median income of $80,000 to $100,000 enjoyed by the OSU graduates responding to the survey is 33% to 66% greater than the median income of all Oregonians and U.S. residents with college degrees reported by census data.”
In his speech, Ray also shared many OSU achievements from the past year, including:
• OSU’s largest graduating class ever in 2019: 7,202 students from its Corvallis campus, and 331 students from OSU-Cascades in Bend.
• Record fall enrollment totaling 32,744 students – making OSU the state’s largest university for the sixth straight year.
• Record enrollment levels among students of color, veterans, international students and first- generation students. For example, 8,327 students of color are enrolled, an increase of 6% over last year.
• Contributions of $144.5 million in 2019 to the OSU Foundation –the second best year ever.
• U.S. News & World Report ranking OSU’s Ecampus online undergraduate degree program No. 5 in the nation and declaring OSU the most innovative university in Pacific Northwest and 33rd most innovative in the country. This represents the sixth straight top 10 ranking for Ecampus.
• Research funding totaling $439.7 million last year – the university’s second best year ever and a 15% increase over the previous year.
• Eight faculty designated as Fulbright faculty scholars and five students as Fulbright student scholars.
• The Carnegie Foundation’s second consecutive recognition honoring OSU for its community engagement efforts. OSU is one of only 28 universities nationally to receive Carnegie recognition for engagement and very high research activity.
In his last major address in the Portland region, Ray, reflected on some of the changes he has seen during his service as OSU president. During the past two decades:
• The percentage of historically under-represented students at OSU has nearly doubled from 13.5% to 26.3%.
• International enrollment has tripled to 3,492.
• The six-year graduation rate has increased from 60.5% to 67.1%.
• OSU completed 96 major facility renovations and new buildings over the past two decades that added 2.6 million gross square feet to its campuses at a value in excess of $1.1 billion.
• The Campaign for OSU in 2014 raised $1.142 billion.
“While the past decade or more has been about adding additional teaching, research and student support facilities, the future will be more about improving existing university facilities – and expanding our OSU-Cascades campus – to serve student success, faculty and research excellence, outreach and our mission as a 21st century land grant university,” Ray said. “At OSU, we have a roadmap for the future.”
Ray also acknowledged F. King Alexander, the former president and chancellor of Louisiana State University, who was appointed in December as Ray’s successor effective July 1.
Ray closed his address by reaffirming the honor and joy he felt serving as OSU’s president.
“The momentum enjoyed within Oregon State University will continue, and the university’s impact will continue to grow far into the future,” he said. “And I guarantee you that the best is yet to come for OSU, the students we serve, and the people we serve in Oregon and across the nation and world.”