Southern Oregon University President Linda Schott is proposing a 12 percent hike in student tuition — among the highest in the state — to prevent $7 million to $8 million in cuts over the next biennium.

"It's an 'ouch' for all of us," Schott told the Mail Tribune Editorial Board Tuesday. "We really don't want to have to go there."

SOU and other public universities are lobbying the Oregon Legislature for an additional $100 million over Gov. Kate Brown's proposed $667 million to prevent such steep hikes in tuition. The University of Oregon announced last month it will have to increase tuition by 10.6 percent to help close a $27.5 million budget gap without extra funding.

If the universities are successful, SOU's tuition increase for in-state undergraduate students next biennium would be about 5 to 8 percent, Schott said. Whatever the increase, SOU would retain its market position as the second-least expensive in the state behind Eastern Oregon, she said.

Craig Morris, SOU vice president for finance and administration, noted SOU already has made $14 million in cuts as part of a retrenchment plan that began in 2014.

"Now we have a very lean organization," Morris said. "We really feel like we're as lean as we can be."

Schott fears any more drastic cuts to the university's nearly $60 million operating budget would begin a "downward spiral" at SOU.

"Any cuts or reductions would really be injurious to our program," Schott said, noting economic repercussions would reverberate throughout the community if faculty had to be cut or programs dropped, which in turn might decrease enrollment.

Schott's proposed tuition increase, along with a 3 to 5 percent increase in housing, would mean in-state, undergraduate students would pay an extra $1,300 to $1,600 a year, Schott and Morris said. Current tuition for three terms at 15 credits per term is $6,813, according to SOU's website. Room and board costs $12,540 a year.

The university has about 6,300 students, with about 4,600 to 4,700 full-time equivalent, Morris said.

Schott and Morris said rising expenses beyond their control, such as Public Employee Retirement System premiums, health insurance costs and labor contracts, are creating the $3.5 million to $4 million shortfall in each year of the next biennium.

Schott's proposed tuition increase will be considered in April by SOU's board of trustees and in May by the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, which must approve any tuition increases higher than 5 percent, Schott said.

Schott, who was hired in June 2016 to replace Roy Saigo, said the university has begun a strategic planning process among mostly faculty and administrators to identify ways SOU can position itself for success in the future. Their findings will be presented to students and the community for more input, she said.

Schott and Morris noted President Trump's policies could have additional impacts on public universities.

"We're living in uncertain times with federal policy," Schott said.

Morris noted Trump's immigration policy and attempts to ban travel from Muslim countries could erode the $2 million a year SOU receives from international students. "If they're scared to come here, that's going to impact SOU," he said.

Schott remains optimistic for SOU's future, saying the strategic planning process will explore how SOU can meet local businesses' need for skilled workers and meet students' needs for flexible learning models.

As the saying goes, she said, "You can't cut your way out of a budget hole, you have to grow your way out."

— Reach Editor Cathy Noah at 541-776-4464 or by email at cnoah@mailtribune.com.