Picture an institution top-heavy with managers where a small percentage of the staff does most of the work, and where its facilities are scattered across the landscape with many doing essentially the same things. Would a wise investor give it more money and assets to waste? Of course not, but that dismal picture describes Oklahoma’s system of higher education.

We have 25-plus colleges or universities, each with its own management and administrative staff, its own enrollment office, food service system, etc. Many offer identical degree programs. In the most recent dozen years for which such numbers are available, higher education staffing per student dropped 10 percent nationally, but in Oklahoma that measure of overhead increased by five percent.

Public colleges and universities in Oklahoma boast that tuition and fees in Oklahoma are low comparatively to other states. But such a claim is meaningless given the low cost of living in Oklahoma and that many things such as housing, health care and numerous other goods and services are at a low cost in Oklahoma compared to other states.

There’s waste in the classroom too. A study by economist Richard Vedder, who helps compile the annual college rankings for Forbes, showed that at Oklahoma’s flagship universities, 20 percent of the faculty teach more than half of all classes. At OU, a typical professor earns more than $100,000 per year but only teaches about 140 student credit hours per year — about 50 students. Compare that to a high school teacher who is likely to make half as much while teaching three times more students.

Why not focus resources on professors who actually teach? The study showed that if faculty teaching loads at OU and OSU alone were balanced so that everyone taught an equivalent number of students, the combined savings would total $182 million per year. Extend that logic to the other institutions of higher education and you’re talking real savings and efficiency.

Worst of all may be the duplication. Many of those 25-plus colleges and universities offer the same degree programs, often to just a few students. In an era when students can take courses online, there is no need to operate duplicate degree programs, with full compliments of faculties, administrators, facilities, and other overhead, at campuses that are in some instances only a few miles apart.

The taxpayers have figured this out. A SoonerPoll survey revealed that 82 percent of Oklahomans think our colleges and universities could be operated more efficiently. Seventy-nine percent thought that faculty teaching loads (actual time in the classroom) should determine how much professors are paid. And four out of five taxpayers thought the $411,000 annual salary for the Chancellor of Higher Education was excessive.

Yet we are constantly warned by higher education officials that the system needs more tax money and higher tuition just to keep the doors open. During this year’s budget discussions, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth about a supposed higher education funding crisis. There was zero discussion of ways to spend those dollars more efficiently — for example, by equalizing teaching loads or combining duplicate administrative functions and degree programs among several institutions.

Surely all those highly paid Ph.D.s can find ways to do precisely that. 

Jonathan Small is the president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.

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