Last June, when a group of about 30 students entered Oregon Health & Science University’s program to become nurse practitioners, they expected to benefit from the university’s pledge not to raise tuition throughout their studies.
For most, OHSU’s “tuition promise” played a key role in their decision to attend the Portland-based school. Some even turned down offers from more prestigious advanced-degree nursing schools, such as Yale University, to go to OHSU because they wanted the tuition freeze they say they were promised by the school’s financial aid counselors.
“It’s a huge deal because you have financial stability,” a nursing student told The Lund Report, requesting anonymity out of fears of retaliation. “You know what you’ll be paying. You’ll plan for it. You know it’s not going to increase every year with the economy and inflation.”
But now, as they prepare to graduate from the accelerated baccalaureate program and shift into OHSU’s doctor of nursing practice program next month, they’ve been told that they will no longer benefit from frozen tuition. OHSU is raising tuition for the doctorate portion of their program by 7.5% for the first year, and could raise it substantially the other two years of the program.
"We feel very betrayed by this university," another student said. "They’re also shooting themselves in the foot in terms of being a provider of quality education that is still somewhat affordable."
A student added: “I feel like this whole thing was false advertising. The tuition promise is still listed on the School of Nursing website.”
Nurse practitioners are advanced health care providers, roughly equivalent to physician assistants; they can make diagnoses, prescribe medication and open and run their own clinics.
The students estimated in an email to OHSU President Dr. Danny Jacobs that a 7.5% tuition increase would cost them nearly $10,000 more than the $73,000 they expected to pay in tuition alone for the three-year doctorate portion of the program. Though the increase represents a drop in the bucket in terms of OHSU’s entire budget, they said it was a lot for them, adding that the switch also undermines OHSU’s values.
“OHSU incorporates transparency as one of its foundational principles, which will certainly be degraded by these changes,” the students wrote. “The lack of transparency erodes students’ trust in the institution, thus inhibiting OHSU from fulfilling its mission.”
The elimination of the tuition promise for new students is part of budget cuts at OHSU. In response to plunging revenues and worries about a drop in funding from the state, the university’s board in June approved a new budget for the fiscal year that started July 1. As part of the deal, board members agreed that OHSU could end its tuition promise.
In a statement to The Lund Report, OHSU said it "did not take its recent financial actions lightly. OHSU is carefully managing its institutional finances now in the sincere hope that the pandemic’s adverse economic impacts will lessen and allow the entire institution to return to better financial footing."
Echoing that sentiment, Dr. Elena Andresen, OHSU provost, told the board members in June: “Although we can honor the tuition promise program where students who have come in in select programs pay the same tuition throughout their education, we will not be able to extend the program to new students.”
And therein lies the rub. The nursing students say they’re not “new,” but merely continuing in their studies as part of the same program. But Jacobs, Andresen and Dr. Susan Bakewell-Sachs, dean of OHSU’s School of Nursing, insisted in an online meeting with the nursing students in June that they’re starting a new program - the doctoral portion of their education - and thus will not benefit from frozen tuition. They said the promise originally was offered to a few programs and then was extended. This is the first time it's been suspended.
In an email before the online meeting, Jacobs also told them their request to keep the tuition promise for the second part of their program was out of the question in light of the “unprecedented financial challenges as a result of COVID-19 and the corresponding economic recession: “I appreciate your advocacy, but OHSU will not reverse the decision made regarding the tuition increase for the (doctor of nursing practice) and other programs,” Jacobs wrote.
The elimination of the tuition promise is also an issue for incoming medical students who said they accepted OHSU’s offer but then were told after the fact that not only would their tuition go up 7.5% compared with the previous year but also that they, too, would not benefit from the tuition promise.
Medical and nursing students have written to lawmakers pleading their case. Sen. Michael Denbrow, D-Portland, responded, saying, “The Legislature has committed to keeping OHSU medical school funding whole precisely in order to prevent a tuition spike and prevent further barriers from being erected for those whose training and certification we need more than ever right now.”
Gov. Kate Brown asked publicly funded agencies in May to prepare for a potential 17% budget cut to help make up a $2.7 billion shortfall in the budget, but those cuts will not be across-the-board. Lawrence Furnstahl, OHSU’s chief financial officer, told the board that OHSU could revise tuition, including offering rebates, depending on what lawmakers decide. The Legislature meets starting Monday for a special session focused on balancing the budget.
A student told Jacobs during the online chat that they could accept an increase 7.5% in September but that eliminating the tuition promise amounted to inequitable treatment. Dental and medical students who entered OHSU last year, just as they did, will benefit from frozen tuition.
“What we are really asking for is to have honored what we were told when we came to this institution,” a nursing student said during the meeting. “We came here not to become nurses at the RN level but to become nurse practitioners and leave with a (doctor of nursing practice).”
You can reach Lynne Terry at [email protected] or on Twitter @LynnePDX.