As Oregon State University officials have worked to develop the Cascades campus in Bend, the big question has not been about the demand for a four-year campus in the central part of the state — the enrollment growth the campus already has seen is evidence of that.
No, the question is whether the state is willing to properly fund what amounts to its eighth four-year campus. After this year's legislative session ended with a bit of a financial thud for Cascades, the question lingered.
But the February short session of the Legislature could provide a big part of the answer.
OSU's top priority in this legislative session will be to win approval for $39 million in capital funding to build a second classroom building on the Cascades campus. Gov. Kate Brown recently backed the OSU request, along with a handful of other capital projects at other Oregon public universities.
This request comes on the heels of an odd turn of events at the end of this year's legislative session, when OSU originally had asked for $69.5 million for the Cascades campus, an amount of money that would have allowed for the construction of the classroom building, along with site reclamation work, infrastructure improvements and a student success center. When the dust settled at the end of the session, the Legislature had allocated just $9.5 million for reclamation work, and it's still uncertain as to what exactly happened.
OSU President Ed Ray said university officials, understanding that the Legislature faced a tight state budget, trimmed their $69.5 million request to $39 million during the course of this year's session. But, for whatever reason, Ray said it appears that Gov. Brown never saw the reduced request.
"She was never unsupportive," Ray said. "She never had all the information she needed."
In any event, Brown is supporting the renewed $39 million request in next year's session, and Ray is grateful. "This kind of wraps up a lot of what we had hoped to accomplish in the first session," he said. (OSU says it has an additional $10 million lined up from private contributions for the classroom building.)
The status of the Cascades campus in Bend is important to the mid-valley for a number of reasons, and here's one of them: The enrollment growth at Cascades, which this year increased 7.3 percent to 1,204 students, gives OSU another tool to try to maintain the relatively slow growth of students at the Corvallis campus. This has been a topic of some interest throughout the mid-valley in recent years, as you might recall.
Even while enrollment growth is booming at Bend, the pace of growth has slowed at the Corvallis campus, where Ray has said he'll cap enrollment at 28,000. This fall, OSU reported enrollment on the Corvallis campus of 24,760, an increase of 0.4 percent from 2016. (As an aside, it's worth remembering that there's still considerable room under that 28,000 cap for additional students in Corvallis.)
The fast-growing campus in Bend offers a safety valve for enrollment on the Corvallis campus. (The same thing is true of OSU's online offerings and its growing presence in Newport.)
OSU asks students in Bend where they would have gone if they hadn't enrolled at Cascades. The consistent answer: "By and large, they would have gone to Corvallis," Ray said, so Cascades "takes some of the enrollment pressure off of Corvallis."
The continued growth of Cascades, however, hinges on whether the state is willing to give it the support it needs. The results of this year's session weren't encouraging. Legislators will get a chance next year to recover from that fumble.