Definition of a ‘public’ college continues to change in Oklahoma, nationally (The Oklahoman)

By The Oklahoman Editorial Board

WHAT does it mean to be a “public” college? Once upon a time, it meant that states provided significant financial support, which kept a cap of sorts on tuition and fees paid by students and their families.

That’s been less and less the case over the past several years. Recessionary measures included either higher education funding cuts or flat budgets. The latter served as an effective cut since fixed costs aren’t getting any cheaper.

According to the College Board, increases in tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities from 2003-04 to 2008-09 went well beyond inflation. From 2008-09 to 2013-14, tuition and fee increases exceeded the inflation rate by a whopping 27 percent.

Oklahoma is far from the most egregious offender in either state support for higher ed or in tuition and fee increases. Still, Oklahoma hasn’t been immune from the nationwide trend, which can be painful for students and their families.

Since 2008, state funding for higher ed has dropped about 10 percent, or $106 million. Earlier this year, higher ed officials feared more cuts were in the offing, raising the ire of University of Oklahoma President David Boren.

“We should start asking what kind of state do we want to be. Who are we as a people? I don’t think we want ignorance and lack of opportunity to be our legacy,” Boren pleaded. Out of his own pockets he paid for full-page newspaper ads in protest of the proposed cut, which never materialized.

Boren said that in the 1970s, state support accounted for half of the university’s budget. Last school year, state support made up less than 20 percent.

Higher ed has long had an effective lobby at the state Capitol. To no one’s surprise, it didn’t take a direct budget hit. Still, a flat budget for this fiscal year means colleges and universities must look elsewhere to pay for increases in enrollment and fixed costs. The fiscal year 2015 appropriation is $51 million behind where it was in FY 2009, according the Oklahoma Policy Institute.

The Oklahoma Regents for Higher Education recently approved tuition and fee increases averaging 5.8 percent at state colleges and universities. For a full-time college student, the increase equals about $258 more a year, higher education officials said.

Only Oklahoma State University and Western Oklahoma State College in Altus held tuition and fees flat for undergraduate students. At OU, tuition and mandatory fees for undergrads will rise 4.8 percent. At community colleges, the average increase is 6 percent.

Regents reported tuition waivers and scholarships at state institutions will rise 8.1 percent to help minimize the impact on students. More than 18,000 students will get Oklahoma’s Promise scholarships, which cover tuition costs for qualifying students.

Compared with other states, higher education in Oklahoma has long been a bargain. That hasn’t changed. Still, at a time when state leaders continue to emphasize the need for more college graduates, it’s painful to know that students who want to pursue higher education are priced out of the opportunity.

The Legislature can’t make money grow on trees. But neither can it ignore the conflicting message it sends to keep asking higher education to do more with less.


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