Published: December 2, 2016 12:00 AM CDT
Higher education officials approved a 2017-18 budget request Thursday that restores most of the $153 million cut from their current budget.
The Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education voted to seek $957,922,109 in state appropriations, an increase of 18.3 percent or nearly $148 million from the current budget.
"This request is very lean," Chancellor Glen Johnson said. "This reflects a minimum need."
The request will be submitted to the governor and Legislature for consideration.
Last session, officials cut state funding for higher education by 16 percent. The cut affected each of the state's 25 public colleges and universities.
The students and future of the state deserve better, University of Oklahoma President David Boren said.
"We're trying to educate 1,000 more students (at OU) with $90 million less than we had in 2008. That's a very difficult task," Boren said.
"To have additional cuts on top of those last year would be an absolute disaster."
President Randy Beutler of Southwestern Oklahoma State University agreed.
"Since 2004, I have lost 63 percent of my state funding," said Beutler, chairman of the Council of Presidents. "That trend — for me and many others — is not sustainable."
The proposed increase includes funds for facility upgrades put on hold and restores some faculty positions and scholarships that were eliminated, Johnson said.
It also includes an additional $6.4 million to fully fund concurrent enrollment. The program offers tuition waivers to high school students who enroll in college coursework during their senior year.
In the past, the budget included a partial tuition waiver with the colleges and universities covering the balance.
"This is a program that works," Johnson said. "These are the students who are going to complete college. They're going to stay in Oklahoma, have jobs in Oklahoma."
Johnson said $122.7 million of the new money is for programs tied to degree-completion efforts.
Degree completion is the regents' top priority as the state struggles to produce the graduates needed to meet workforce needs, he said.
Oklahoma State University President Burns Hargis said the state is in a battle for economic prosperity against a lot of competitors that are much better funded and have more college graduates.
"We have tremendous demand for engineers in this state. It is the silver bullet. All we've got to do is produce these engineers," Hargis said.
While engineering enrollment has doubled at OSU since 2008, faculty and facilities have stayed flat due to lack of funding.
"We are underspending, and the victims are the students and the state of Oklahoma," Hargis said.
Despite predictions of a budget shortfall again this year, higher education officials must ask for the "essential resources to do our job," he said.
"I know that it's going to be hard for the Legislature to fund all the requests, but we've got to tell them what we need, and this is what we need."
Regent Andy Lester, of Edmond, said if the state wants the economic benefits and the public good of having a public higher education system, officials must make the decision to fund it.
"There is virtually nothing this state does that is more important than higher education, and we're either going to fund it or we're not," Lester said.
Regent Jody Parker, of Tulsa, said, "We can either choose to enrich the future of the state of Oklahoma or, alternatively, impoverish the future of the state of Oklahoma."