DEALING WITH THE BUDGET NSU, other universities watching for further cuts (Tahlequah Daily Press)

By Sean Rowley

During 2017, those associated with higher education – students, faculty, staff, administration – are again on the circling carnival ride of funding cuts followed by tuition hikes.

Earlier this summer, almost all of Oklahoma’s colleges and universities made their pitches to the State Regents for Higher Education to raise tuition and fees an average of just under 5 percent. Regents for the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University agreed in June to 5 percent tuition increases. Northeastern State University requested a 2.1 percent increase.

“At a time when we should be increasing the investment in one of the biggest drivers of change, higher ed, I stand before you today almost déjà vu all over again,” NSU President Steve Turner told the regents. “This is the third year.”

Digging deeper into bank accounts each year is becoming routine for Oklahoma’s college students and their families. Between 2006 and 2016, tuition rose between 60 and 139 percent at the state’s institutions of higher education. At NSU, the increase was about 78 percent.

Adding to the difficulties, the Oklahoma Legislature also had imposed reductions to higher education funding during the span.

“Unfortunately, for the third year in a row, our budget at NSU includes significant cuts enacted by the Oklahoma Legislature,” Turner told the Press Tuesday. “The three-year total reduction for NSU is $11.06 million, or 31.9 percent.”

Breaking down the reductions, Turner said NSU’s cuts amounted to $3.5 million, or 9.8 percent, in fiscal 2016, and $5.7 million, or 15.9 percent in fiscal 2017. He said this year’s budget includes additional appropriation reductions of $1.8 million, 6.08 percent.

Higher education and all state agencies are holding their collective breath as some of the state’s general appropriations come under legal fire. If the Oklahoma Supreme Court decides some parts of the budget were passed unconstitutionally, further cuts could follow.

“Like other state-funded organizations, we are monitoring the ongoing activities that could affect revenue this fiscal year,” Turner said. “We are determined to continue to serve our students and produce the well-prepared graduates our region and our state needs.”

State Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, R-Muskogee, who sits on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, said lawmakers see higher education as a tempting bird to carve because

many expenses can be passed to the students and the schools can dip into endowments or hit up alumni.

“I think the cuts could have been divvied differently over the years,” Pemberton said. “OU and OSU have large endowments. Maybe instead of across-the-board cuts, OU and OSU could have taken larger cuts than Northeastern State University. Right now, I believe we need to fund our colleges and universities properly, and we do need to get more money to higher education.”

But Pemberton also believes some of the current funding could be “redirected.”

“What disappoints me most is how much is spent on the Regents for Higher Education,” Pemberton said. “Some of the highest salaries are up around $250,000. A campus might have 30 employees dealing with diversity issues. Do we need that many? I think there are places where money can be spent a little better.”

Pemberton said the Legislature appropriates funding to colleges and universities, but has less say about how the money is actually spent.

“We don’t line-item budget, and it is up to the colleges and regents to decide what they spend on administration or services,” he said. “There are some questions, and some talk about the possibility of interim studies, forensic audits, or maybe even a task force to see if we are getting the most bang out of the budget and that the taxpayers’ money is being spent wisely.”

Lawmakers may want to check higher education for bloat, but there is definitely less state money to throw around campus. The Grapevine Project at the University of Illinois reported that since fiscal 2012, Oklahoma is one of only seven states to decrease higher education funding. Oklahoma’s 17.8 percent reduction dwarfs that of Kansas, Arkansas, Kentucky, Alaska, and West Virginia. Louisiana has the second highest cuts with 11.5 percent.

The Oklahoma Policy Institute reported that Oklahoma’s spending on all levels of education, when accounting for inflation, was $887 million less in 2016 than in 2009. Glen Johnson, state chancellor for higher education, has claimed that Oklahoma’s colleges and universities now employ 2.000 fewer faculty and staff than in 2015, and offer 1,800 fewer courses.

The regents announced their own task force in March. In a statement, Johnson said: “We must consider ways to improve college degree completion in Oklahoma within the current fiscal context. Increasing the number of college graduates is critical to individual financial prosperity and to strengthening our state’s economic outlook.”


Margaret (Maggie) den Harder obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Christian Theology from Seattle Pacific University and a Master of Public Administration from the University of Oklahoma. Originally from the Pacific Northwest area of Washington state, Maggie has called Tulsa home for the past 8 years. Since living in Tulsa, Maggie has worked in the legal field, higher education administration, and the nonprofit sector as well as actively volunteering in the community. Maggie also recently spent time at the City of Tulsa as a consultant and wrote the content for Resilient Tulsa, an action-oriented strategy designed to better equity in Tulsa. Through her work, community involvement, and personal experiences, Maggie is interested in the intersection of the law and mental health and addiction treatment issues, preventative and diversion programs, and maternal mental health, particularly post-partum depression and post-partum psychosis. While working at Oklahoma Policy Institute as a research intern, Maggie further developed an interest in family dynamics and stability, economic security-related stress, and intergenerational trauma.

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