With so much focus on pre-K through 12-grade education funding, it is easy to overlook the more drastic cuts that higher education has sustained over the past decade. State spending on higher education has decreased by 26 percent since 2008 with Oklahoma leading the nation for the most drastic cuts between 2012 and 2017. Unfortunately, last year’s boost to PK-12 education funding did not extend to higher education whose budget remained virtually flat from the previous year.

Maintaining a robust system of higher education in Oklahoma is vital to our state’s economy. By 2020, 67 percent of all jobs created in Oklahoma will require some college, a certificate, or a college degree. States that have a larger share of workers with a college degree are more productive and have higher median wages. Appropriating state revenue to higher education yields an especially good return on the investment, considering that 87.3 percent of Oklahoma residents who graduate with a bachelor’s degree remain in the state and are employed here after they graduate.

Unfortunately, over the past two decades a dramatically shrinking share of the higher education budget has come from the state. In 1988, 74.2 percent of the budget for higher education was state appropriated dollars, but in 2019 just 27.2 percent of the budget came from state funding.

As a result, Oklahoma colleges and universities have had to shift these costs onto students through increased tuition and fees. From 2009 to 2017, tuition and fees increased an average of 4.9 percent across Oklahoma’s public colleges and universities. This is especially troubling because a larger percentage of Oklahomans already struggle to pay back student loans than in almost any other state.

Funding cuts have not only driven up tuition costs, but they have also forced schools to cut faculty positions, keep salaries low and cut programming. Smaller institutions such as two-year schools and community colleges have been hit the hardest by these cuts because a larger portion of their budgets come from state funding. As a result, these schools have seen the greatest reduction in faculty and program offerings across the state’s institutions. Two-year college faculty have also left positions to teach in PK-12 schools, which can now pay higher salaries as a result of last year’s teacher pay raise.

State funding shortfalls have also forced the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education to cut six scholarship programs that help individuals in need attain a college degree. This includes a scholarship designed to address the teacher shortage by offering awards to students who commit to teaching math and science in Oklahoma, along with a tuition waiver for National Guard members.

The good news is that this year the state can confidently invest Oklahoma’s growth revenue back into a system that will yield strong returns in the future. Our institutions of higher education have been strained for the past decade. It is time to give them the funding they need to boost Oklahoma’s college graduation rates and help secure Oklahoma’s economic prosperity.

Rebecca Fine is an education policy analyst with Oklahoma Policy Institute (www.okpolicy.org).

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