Published March 28, 2017
Three-quarters of Oklahoma voters surveyed said spending state dollars on higher education is a good investment, despite some lawmakers' claims that it's not a funding priority for constituents.
Oklahoma Tomorrow — a new statewide nonprofit advocating "proper funding" for higher education — released data Tuesday from a poll of 500 registered voters conducted in December by Cole Hargrave Snodgrass & Associates.
"We wanted to know for ourselves where people stood," said Oklahoma Tomorrow CEO Devery Youngblood. "They get it. They understand the importance of it."
Lawmakers who have been hostile toward funding higher education "have said way-over-the-top things that aren't true," Youngblood said.
The appropriation for colleges and universities was cut by more than $157 million during the 2016 legislative session.
"The drastic 16 percent reduction — and any further cuts attempted during the 2017 session — go against what Oklahoma voters want," Youngblood said.
The survey shows 94 percent of those polled agree or strongly agree higher education is important to economic health, and 60 percent said too few Oklahomans receive a college degree, he said.
"Support for a college degree extends across all party, ideological and demographic lines," he said, including parents who don't have a degree but want their children to have that opportunity.
"Voters understand proper funding for colleges and universities provides a chance for everyone to succeed," Youngblood said.
Increasing tuition to replace state funding is "pricing out people in the middle" who don't earn enough to pay for college, but earn too much to receive financial aid based on need, he said.
Youngblood said he thinks the negativity comes from the coasts, where liberal institutions have blocked conservative speakers from campuses and pushed political correctness to the limit.
That leads to complaints here about "how out of control higher education is ... It's the easiest group to hit right now," he said. "But that's not who we are (in Oklahoma)."
The turnover in the Legislature following the recent election has brought in "a lot of really smart people who don't have that tone. I'm hopeful for the long haul," he said.
The Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education last week approved a new task force to review the status of Oklahoma's higher education system and to make recommendations to modernize it.
"We've continued to see our system do more with less money in the last few years, and now we've got to look at the other alternatives," said Regent Ronald White, of Oklahoma City.
Youngblood said he learned about the task force when it was announced and he hopes Oklahoma Tomorrow will be represented on the panel.
While the group promotes increased and consistent funding for higher education, it's not backing any specific proposal for new revenue, he said.
Pollsters didn't ask those surveyed if they are willing to pay more in taxes to support higher education.
Youngblood said the survey shows voters are frustrated that Oklahoma continues "to rank among the worst in the nation for incarceration, health care and a skilled workforce."