OHSU Incoming Med Students Fight For DACA Student, Against Tuition Rise
In late June, several pre-med students who had been accepted into Oregon Health & Science University, watched the organization’s board meeting online. The meeting focused on the budget and included a section on changes to tuition.
When they applied to OHSU, they had expected to be covered under the university's “tuition promise” to freeze tuition during a student’s normal course of study, a policy first adopted in 2013.
But Dr. Elena Andresen, OHSU’s provost and executive vice president, confirmed during the board meeting what at least some of the students had already learned: the university would have to rescind the promise for incoming students due to plunging revenues. She also said that incoming medical, nursing and dentistry students would see a tuition hike of 7.5% compared with less than half that for incoming students last year.
“This is a challenging year for us at OHSU,” Andresen told board members while discussing the proposed budget for the fiscal year that started July 1. “As provost, it is really hard to have these kinds of tuition increases when we’ve been able to keep them so low in past years.”
The pandemic has pummeled OHSU’s finances, with Chief Financial Officer Lawrence Furnstahl predicting an operating loss of $95 million on revenues of $3.3 billion for this fiscal year, with patient revenues at about 92% of pre-COVID-19 levels. The budget included an expected cut in state education funding, a potential loss of $6 million, though legislative leaders have indicated they would protect OHSU in budget cuts.
The students knew OHSU’s finances had been hit by the pandemic. But they were stunned to learn about a policy change made after they'd agreed to attend the university.
“It was really disappointing to see that happen in the way that it did without any sort of transparency, because a few of us were incentivized to attend OHSU because of the fact that they had the tuition promise program in place,” Dechen Dolkar, a first generation Tibetan immigrant and incoming medical student told The Lund Report.
The students were also concerned about something else that came up during the board meeting: the withdrawal of a full-ride scholarship for a DACA student. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which is under attack by the Trump administration, allows those who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children to work and study here legally.
One board member, Stacy Chamberlain, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 75, told Andresen: “I know that we’re struggling and things are tight, but we should do everything we can to keep those promises.”
The student, Jose Manuel Carrillo, accepted OHSU’s offer after being promised a full scholarship in an email, Dolkar said. But in June the university told him he would not be getting a scholarship, she said.
Carrillo reached out to his peers in a private Facebook group. They rallied behind him, sending a petition to OHSU on his behalf:
“It has come to our attention that the university decided, only months before matriculation, to eliminate certain scholarships that had been advertised to entering students as an incentive to attend OHSU during a time in which students from marginalized communities need these scholarships the most,” the petition said. “This decision was made without an invitation for student input, and was not properly communicated to incoming or current students, revealing a stark lack of transparency.”
The petition was signed “OHSU MD Class of 2024,” a group of about 150 people.
Carillo, who did not respond to interview requests, created a GoFundMe campaign. It recounted how his family had brought him to the U.S. when he was 8 so he could fulfill his dream of being a doctor. It said he had chosen OHSU because of its “amazing medical program” and programs that would allow him to work with underserved communities.
“I want to practice in primary care to help communities that have been affected in the way I have,” Carillo wrote. “I want to change our systems of medicine to bring equity and justice to Black communities, people of color, LGBTQ folks, Indigenous communities, undocumented communities, houseless populations and anyone else who has been left behind by medical institutions.”
Carrillo is just the kind of student OHSU says it’s trying to foster.
The campaign said he was in the middle of moving to Portland when he found out he wouldn’t get a scholarship after all. As a DACA recipient, he didn’t qualify for other financial aid.
“I am now less than two months from starting school and trying to find the money to attend with no opportunity for (financial aid),” he wrote.
Money poured in, including some $1,000 contributions. One came from Dr. George Mejicano, the senior associate dean for education in the medical school, and his wife, Margaret Greene-Mejicano. Dr. Elizabeth Lahti, director of narrative medicine at OHSU, also contributed $1,000, as did Joellen Swan, who works for the Salem-Keizer School District.
Within two weeks, the campaign raised more than $30,000, not enough to cover a year of med school.
Students usually spend four years earning a medical degree. According to an OHSU document shared with the board, students in the Class of 2024 will pay nearly $55,000 in tuition and fees the first year. A tuition raise of 7.5% the three subsequent years would cost an extra $13,000.
Andresen said any future raises will depend on revenues. Furnstadhl added that the 7.5% hike for this year could even be dialed back if finances change.
Carillo no longer has to worry about that. In mid-July, OHSU notified him that it had found funds to give him a full ride, he said on his GoFundMe page. In a statement to The Lund Report, OHSU said it went to work in July and identified new money for scholarships.
“OHSU is now awarding 18 President's Fund scholarships for incoming students for the duration of their programs, totaling nearly $2.3 million,” the statement said. “This is the largest total amount awarded to incoming students for the duration of their program since the inception of the President’s Fund scholarship in 2013.”
The statement denied OHSU had promised any scholarships and then backtracked: “At no time did OHSU award and then rescind scholarships to its incoming students. But because the scholarships have been listed as potential financial support options on some OHSU materials, incoming students may have inferred they might receive affected scholarships.”
The students were pleased OHSU came up with scholarship money a short time after they submitted their petition and publicized it on social media.
“We all felt a little bit like we were able to make a difference,” Dolkar said.
Dolkar said they are reaching out to lawmakers and anyone who can help in hopes of getting the tuition promise reinstated and the tuition increase lowered.
In the overall picture, tuition accounts for a fraction of the university’s budget, and the tuition hike will only cover $1 million to $1.5 million potential losses in state education funding, CFO Furnstadhl told the board. The tuition hike is one of many adjustments to the budget, including a temporary 10% cut in faculty salaries. Furnstadhl said he could move the chess pieces around and not cut tuition so much, for example by delaying a restoration of full salaries.
But he advised the board to long term. If OHSU does not respond to an expected cut from the state, lawmakers might further reduce funding in the future.
“If there’s no relationship between a significant potential reduction in our state funding for education and our actions -- either the size of the program or the cost of the program to students -- then we’re at risk of losing even more of that money,” Furnstadhl said.
He said the university could tweak its budget again in October, depending on how revenues go.
Though classes start Aug. 10, Dolkar still holds out hope.
“We hope to get one of those things resolved,” she said, referring to a restoration of the tuition promise or a cut in the tuition hike.
This article has been corrected to clarify that some of the students knew about OHSU's policy shift when they watched the board meeting.