Higher education funding cuts continue to drive up tuition and threaten college access

Another national report is calling attention to Oklahoma’s drastic cuts to funding for colleges and universities in recent years. At a time when a college education has never been more critical for individual prosperity and state economic development, funding decisions by Oklahoma lawmakers continue to make college less affordable and accessible.

In the decade since the Great Recession, Oklahoma has cut per pupil higher education funding by over one-third (34.0 percent) once adjusted for inflation, according to a national survey released this week by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a DC-based think tank. These are the sixth deepest cuts in the nation over this period. On a per pupil basis, state funding declined by $3,294 between 2008 and 2017 in real dollars.

Earlier this year, a study by the Education Grapevine Project at Illinois State University found that Oklahoma has enacted the deepest cuts in the nation to higher education. That study looked at the period from 2012-17 and did not adjust for changes in student enrollment.

The report from the Center on Budget also shows that while most states have now reversed the trend of post-recession funding cuts by increasing their support for higher education, Oklahoma continues to cut even deeper. Last year (2016-17), Oklahoma cut per pupil higher education funding by 8.0 percent, the second steepest cut in the nation behind Wyoming. Unlike Oklahoma, thirty-six of the 49 states covered by the report raised per-student funding for higher education last year.  The Legislature added another 4.5 percent cut to the budget of the Regents for Higher Education in the 2017 session.

Funding cuts shift costs onto students

Chart by Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education

In just the past decade, the share of the total higher education budget provided by legislative appropriation has plummeted from 50.8 percent to 30.0 percent, according to data provided by the State Regents for Higher Education.  As in many other states, Oklahoma college and university students have been required to make up a good portion of the decline in state funding by rising tuition and fees. Between 2008 and 2017, average tuition at a four-year Oklahoma college increased by 38.9 percent after inflation, according to the Center on Budget’s report. The State Regents announced an average statewide tuition increase of 5.3 percent for 2017-18.


The growth in tuition costs has vastly outpaced the income gains of most families over the past decade, accelerating a trend that has put a squeeze on lower- and middle-income families since the 1970s. Nationally, tuition increased by 34 percent between 2008 and 2015, while real median income grew merely 2.1 percent, the Center’s report finds.

Numerous studies show that higher tuition is a serious obstacle to enrolling in college and completing a degree, especially for low-income students and students of color. It also leaves more students saddled with burdensome debt when they leave college. A majority of Oklahoma students graduate with debt — 52 percent as of 2015 — and the average student loan debt of a graduate of a 4-year university is almost $25,000, according to Prosperity Now’s Assets and Opportunity Scorecard.

Oklahoma already trails the nation in creating college graduates

[pullquote]The growth in tuition costs has vastly outpaced the income gains of most families over the past decade, accelerating a trend that has put a squeeze on lower- and middle-income families.[/pullquote]

In Oklahoma, just 24.6 percent of the population holds a four-year college degree, ranking us 44th among the states and well below the national average of 30.6 percent.  Across the country, the states with the highest productivity and wages are those with the most college graduates. This correlation has grown much stronger in recent decades, as a degree became increasingly important for getting a good job. From 1979 to 2012, the wage gap between families headed by two college graduates and families headed by high school graduates grew by $30,000, after inflation.

Oklahoma has made college completion a high priority, announcing the ambitious goal of increasing the number of degrees and certificates earned in Oklahoma by 67 percent by 2023. The state’s College Completion Initiative has enjoyed initial success, increasing the number of degrees and certificates earned by over 8,400 between 2012 and 2016. But as higher education is cut, and colleges respond by eliminating programs, laying off faculty and staff and by raising tuition, these gains are threatened. Especially at a time when other states are boosting their investments in higher education, our Legislature’s willingness to cut funding for colleges and universities year after year threatens to leave our state less economically competitive and to leave too many of our students without the education they need to succeed.

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Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

One thought on “Higher education funding cuts continue to drive up tuition and threaten college access

  1. Oklahoma State pays a football coach 5 million and is building everywhere on campus. Could that also be a factor?

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