The importance of higher education

The importance of higher education

  • By: Regent Andrew Lester

I have known Andrew Spiropoulos since 1991 and consider him a good friend. We have collaborated in the past and will likely do so again.

Yet, I found his recent column on higher education in Oklahoma just plain wrong.

In the column, he asserts that dramatic cuts in state support of higher education do not matter since overall spending from all sources — tuition hikes, private donations, an influx of students from Texas and elsewhere — has increased, thus offsetting the cuts. He goes on to dismiss any disagreement as “hooey.”

But I do disagree, and the facts speak for themselves.

State appropriations for higher education the past three years have plummeted from $963 million to $810 million and now sit at just $773.6 million. The last time the Legislature appropriated a lower amount for higher education was at the end of the last century, when the appropriation was $772 million. And these numbers are not adjusted for the over 40 percent inflation since 1999.

In 1981, state support accounted for 76.5 percent of our public university system’s funding. By 2000, this number had fallen to 62.0 percent. In FY 2018, which just started, state support has now dropped below 30 percent.

When Spiropoulos writes “it’s false to say that higher education spending has been significantly cut,” he both misquotes what higher education leaders have said and misstates the facts.

The issue is not “higher education spending.” The issue is state support for higher education, and the facts are undeniable – the State of Oklahoma will invest approximately 20 percent less this year than just two years ago.

Spiropoulos does propose a solution — raise tuition dramatically. And if we price ourselves out of the market and lose talented students to private schools and other states? “That’s a trade-off I’m willing to make,” Spiropoulos says. That might make sense to someone employed by a private university, but it is nonsense to anyone responsible for making quality public higher education affordable and accessible for all Oklahomans.

Oklahoma’s economic health depends on a steady flow of qualified workers. How long will Tinker, Vance and Altus Air Force bases and Fort Sill stay in Oklahoma without engineers? Will GE, Nordam, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, AAR, Devon, Chesapeake and other major employers continue to invest in Oklahoma without a strong public higher education system? Should we send our best and brightest to schools in Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and other states — states that support higher education — and simply hope they return to Oklahoma after graduation?

The recently formed Task Force on the Future of Higher Education in Oklahoma is seeking solutions to increase productivity and optimize operations of our public colleges and universities. Recommendations will be forthcoming to improve our higher education system while maintaining its accessibility, affordability and quality.

Virtually nothing we do as a society is as important as supporting higher education. Our state’s future depends on it. So let’s not base our actions on phony statistics and radical dogma, but rather on actions and facts – two pillars on which real change can occur.

Andrew Lester 
Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education

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