Published: Feb 8, 2016
In a recent editorial, The Oklahoman notes that tax cuts aren't the only cause of Oklahoma's revenue shortfall and budget deficit. Clearly, other factors such as energy prices are part of the picture. The editorial compares Oklahoma's predicament to other states, which I think provides the opportunity to re-examine our situation and our priorities.
Make no mistake: Oklahoma is an extreme outlier when it comes to the size of the hole in our budget. The state faces an $868 million shortfall. That represents nearly 13 percent of the current $6.8 billion in state appropriations. And importantly, this follows a total 5 percent cut in state appropriations for fiscal year 2017, when the Legislature disproportionately gashed higher education with a devastating 14 percent cut.
These cuts have left agencies, including the University of Oklahoma, nearly two decades behind the times. In 2017, OU's Norman campus received $5 million less than was received in 1999, despite a 32 percent increase in enrollment and a 45 percent increase in degrees awarded. We are doing far more, with far less.
Oklahoma's crisis is vastly worse than the other states used as comparisons. The editorial refers to larger dollar shortfalls, but neglects to put these figures in context. The deficits in the states cited, California, Connecticut, Maryland and New York, represent only 1.3 percent, 0.3 percent, 3.2 percent and 1 percent of their general fund budgets, respectively. And all of these states have significantly larger rainy day fund balances that allow for greater flexibility.
Despite challenging times, these peers have recognized the value of higher education and creatively sought ways to expand support for their universities. In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan's fiscal year 2018 budget has proposed a nearly $30 million increase to the state university system. In Connecticut, through the Next Generation Connecticut initiative, the state plans nearly $1.5 billion in capital investment at the University of Connecticut and $137 million in additional operating funds by 2024. The additional $137 million planned for UConn exceeds OU's Norman campus' entire current state appropriation of $110 million.
For the sake of comparison, the University of Connecticut, a public flagship very similar in size to OU, receives about $16,500 per undergraduate student from the state, whereas OU receives around $6,200 per undergraduate from state appropriations. Our tuition and fees are also 22 percent lower, yet we offer an equally high-quality educational experience and achieve nearly equal rates of student retention.
We have been doing a lot with a little, but it cannot continue indefinitely in a competitive environment. When other states are investing, we are divesting. Oklahoma is moving in exactly the wrong direction. The question really is whether the state wants a high-quality public research university. Do we want a university where our best students can go to college in state, or do we want to accelerate brain drain? Do we want to have a university that attracts high-demand, high-skilled jobs, or do we want to be an economic backwater while other states stride into the 21st century?
The choice before us is very real. Do we choose to invest and move forward, or to divest and suffer the stagnation that inevitably follows? The numbers tell a stark story.
Harper is the University of Oklahoma's senior vice president and provost.