Published April 3, 2017
I grew up in a rural Oklahoma banking family. I learned building a successful future requires sacrifice, long-term focus, and careful attention to the bottom line. These lessons apply to our state government as well.
While legislators struggle with difficult budget challenges, it is critical they take into consideration a major negative impact on Oklahoma’s bottom line: We are not producing enough college graduates to fill today’s jobs, much less Oklahoma’s future workforce needs.
Bottom line damage includes potential loss of work at Tinker Air Force Base because Oklahoma is not graduating enough engineers, information technology specialists and other critical professions. Healthcare providers statewide are devastated by a critical nursing shortage made worse because every college and university in Oklahoma has to turn away qualified potential nurses every semester due to budget cuts. There are over 18,000 job openings in Oklahoma unable to be filled for one reason only — not enough college graduates.
Slashing funding to Oklahoma’s colleges and universities has damaged rural areas like my hometown of Woodward. Just as we recover from the oil downturn we are hit with a slowing pipeline of graduates from schools like Northwestern Oklahoma State University, Oklahoma Panhandle State University and Northern Oklahoma College. Many graduates return to rural communities to fill our prescriptions, make our mortgages, do our taxes, and run our schools.
How will we grow without a workforce educated for today’s economy?
Bankers look for balanced, sustainable approaches to stability and growth. But for every dollar of state budget cuts in Oklahoma in the last three years, over 53 cents of it has been taken from our higher education system. There is nothing balanced or sustainable about that. In fact, the disproportionate targeting of our ability to educate our workforce sentences another generation of Oklahomans to being ranked 49th on all the good economic and quality of life lists.
Fewer graduates mean less economic growth to fund common education, healthcare, public safety, transportation and other critical functions. We are eating our seed corn; raiding our future growth to pay for the latest crisis. Who gets hurts the worst? Rural communities and struggling neighborhoods robbed of economy-growing talent, and working poor and middle- class students who neither qualify for financial aid nor inherit a trust fund.
Private sector and tribal business leaders statewide formed Oklahoma Tomorrow, a nonprofit organization advocating for decisions that lead to more graduates for our economy and communities. We must commit to growing our economy for future challenges and opportunities.
This issue is about students — recent high school graduates and returning adults — who will be Oklahoma’s leaders soon. To stabilize our economy and communities, these students need state leaders to make decisions to unite Oklahomans and expand opportunities.
We cannot afford to ignore the consequences of defunding higher education. Encourage your legislators to work together to make better decisions today in order to secure a better Oklahoma tomorrow.
Bruce Benbrook is president and chairman of stock Exchange Bank, Woodward, and chairman of the board for Oklahoma Tomorrow.