Published: April 19, 2017
The Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education recently announced formation of a task force to consider ways to improve degree completion and increase productivity through enhanced modernization, efficiencies and innovation in higher education. The task force will examine academic models, online education, structure, fiscal services, operational efficiencies, workforce development, and information technology to ensure each facet of the system is designed to best serve Oklahoma students and meet workforce needs. The fiscal viability of each institution will be reviewed in the context of the budget cuts over the last several years. We believe this will be the most important initiative in Oklahoma higher education in the last three decades.
While task force work is underway to shape higher education tomorrow, our colleges and universities are struggling to serve students today in the wake of historic budget cuts. For fiscal year 2017, cuts to public higher education exceeded $157 million, a 16.4 percent decrease from the fiscal year 2016 appropriation. With current appropriations below 2001 levels, funding for public higher education has been set back a full generation. Following these cuts, the State Higher Education Executive Officers association has ranked Oklahoma last of the 50 states in the percentage change in state support for higher education from FY16 to FY17. Oklahoma also ranks last among the 33 participating Complete College America (CCA) states in state funding support from FY12 to FY17.
Oklahoma’s future economic growth greatly depends on a well-educated workforce. By 2020, 67 percent of job vacancies in Oklahoma — or 418,000 jobs — will require an associate’s degree or additional postsecondary education and training, and 37 percent will require an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, or higher. To bridge the skills gap, the state Regents are working with Gov. Mary Fallin through Complete College America and the Oklahoma Works and Launch Oklahoma initiatives to increase the number of degrees and certificates awarded in Oklahoma.
Facing this budget challenge with reduced appropriations, our state system of higher education has continued to keep tuition affordable, and was recently recognized by U.S. News & World Report for having the sixth-lowest tuition and fees and seventh-lowest debt level at graduation in the nation. These distinctions follow recognition by both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and the National Center for Education Statistics, which rank our Oklahoma higher education system among the top five most affordable in the nation.
We must acknowledge the negative impact additional budget cuts will have on our ability to continue meeting Oklahoma’s critical degree completion goals and produce the graduates demanded by business and industry to meet their job needs. Sufficient state support for higher education must be a top priority in the budget currently being negotiated by the governor and Legislature.
The state system’s FY18 budget request is specifically designed to boost degree completion with adequate funding to meet academic program requirements, fund institutional scholarships and concurrent enrollment, and restore student support and advisement programs. Investment by the Legislature in higher education is vital to both the prosperity of individual Oklahomans and our state’s economic future.
Glen D. Johnson is state chancellor of higher education.