Plans are on the drawing board for enormous reductions in faculty and classes at state colleges and universities, if worst-case-scenario budget cuts hit higher education this year.
One year after the state’s higher education system took a 16 percent hit, legislative leaders have asked the state Regents for Higher Education to consider scenarios of up to 20 percent cuts in appropriations.
Regents documents show that a 20 percent cut in appropriations would mean:
• Elimination of up to 2,549 courses;
• Closure of branch campuses;
• Elimination of up to 2,583 jobs (including 321 currently filled faculty positions) and furloughs for 626 other workers;
• Elimination of up to 4,400 scholarships and grants from programs operated by the state Regents and up to $5.4 million in cuts to college- and university-sponsored scholarships.
Also cuts would hit student employment positions, library hours and services, academic advising positions, job placement positions and athletic coaching positions.
Locally, the numbers are very ugly. Under a 20 percent scenario, Tulsa Community College, Northeastern State University, Rogers State University, the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa and Oklahoma State University-Tulsa would eliminate 869 course sections, with the biggest hit at TCC.
And yet, for the student, faculty and staff at the state’s colleges and universities it’s really just more of the same.
Drained by a series of bad tax cut decisions and a depressed oil market, state revenue has plunged for three years. Instead of reversing course on its mistakes, the Legislature has chosen to eliminate essential state services.
Arrogance, political jealousy and a streak of anti-intellectual rubism has led the Legislature to visit a disproportionate portion of those cuts on higher education.
In the past four budget years, 53 percent of the state’s budget cuts have come from the Regents budget. As a result, higher education has gone from the state’s No. 2 budget priority (second to public schools) with nearly 14 percent of appropriations to No. 3 (behind schools and Medicaid) with 12 percent of the a much smaller pie.
At the same time, the state has expected its colleges and universities to do more, a lot more.
The Legislature appropriated $810 million to colleges and universities this year, which is the same amount appropriated in 2001. In the same period, the system has added 14.6 percent more students. We’ve skipped a generation in higher education funding, but we haven’t skipped any students.
A 20 percent cut this year would take the system back to 1997 levels in terms of funding, but still at current levels in terms of students.
What has cutting more than $153 million from state higher education spending in the last year alone done? The regents have more than 2,000 positions that are either unfilled or eliminated. Forty-two degree programs and 1,822 courses were eliminated. Class sizes? Up. Financial aid? Down. And a whole range of other things — technology, counseling, library acquisitions and athletic programs — have felt the budget knife too.
Cut higher education again, and you’ll see more of the same.
It seems like it should go without saying, but I’m saying it: Affordable, public higher education is vital to the state’s future.
It creates two things we must have: high-paying jobs (through research) and educated people to fill them.
A Georgetown Center for Education and Workforce Development analysis of Oklahoma job openings in 2020 — just three years from now — shows that 67 percent of all jobs created will require post-high school education and 37 percent will require college diplomas.
This is an issue of importance to every taxpayer, even those with no children preparing to go to college. If Oklahoma doesn’t produce a well-educated, high-earning workforce, the demand for public assistance goes up and the pressure on the existing taxpayers to pay for it goes up too.
Educating the next generation breaks the cycle of poverty and broadens the taxpayer base. If we don’t make that critical investment we will surely be left ignorant, unskilled and poor.