Published: April 2, 2017
As we approach the mid-point of the 2017 legislative session, we must talk plainly about the importance of investing in public higher education.
Budget cuts to Oklahoma public higher education are the deepest in the nation. With cuts exceeding $157 million (16.4 percent) from fiscal year 2016 to FY 2017 and current appropriations below 2001 levels, funding has been set back a full generation. Reviewing our state's investment in public higher education in the national context creates cause for concern.
As a result of these cuts, the State Higher Education Executive Officers association reports that Oklahoma ranks 50th of the 50 states in the percentage change in state support for higher education from FY 2016 to FY 2017. Additionally, Oklahoma is ranked last among the 33 states participating in the Complete College America degree completion initiative in percentage change in state appropriations from FY 2012 to FY 2017.
While some have said higher education could offset the budget cuts by increasing tuition, in reality, just over half of the budget reduction was offset by tuition, fees and other revenue. The negative impacts of these cuts on academic programs, personnel, student services and degree completion initiatives are devastating. In this environment, a college degree could become financially out of reach for some Oklahomans at a time when it has never been more valuable. This disinvestment in higher education was a significant factor in a downgrade of Oklahoma's outlook by Moody's, a top credit rating agency.
Strengthening Oklahoma's workforce through our degree and certificate completion plan continues to be our top priority. The state system's FY 2018 budget request is specifically designed to support degree completion, requesting funding to meet academic program requirements and for institutional scholarships. Working with private institutions and career technology centers, we have surpassed our degree completion goals to date, but we must acknowledge the detrimental effect additional budget cuts will have on our ability to continue meeting these critical benchmarks.
Nationally, more than 30 percent of adults older than age of 25 hold a bachelor's degree or higher. In Oklahoma, that number is just above 24 percent. The deadline to increase degree and certificate completion to meet our state's workforce needs is fast approaching. The Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce reports that by 2020, 67 percent of all Oklahoma job vacancies will require an associate degree or additional postsecondary education and training, and 37 percent will require an associate degree, bachelor's degree or higher.
In this challenging budget environment, difficult choices must be made. Appropriately funding our higher education system must be a top state priority. Without adequate state support, we will be unable to meet our degree and certificate attainment goals and have Oklahoma graduates to meet our workforce needs.
If we can't meet these business and industry workforce needs, our state's economic growth and prosperity are at risk. Higher education remains the best investment our Legislature and citizens can make to strengthen our economy and ensure a brighter future for all Oklahomans.