Investing in Oklahoma higher education yields strong returns

With so much focus on pre-K through twelfth grade education funding, it is easy to overlook the more drastic cuts that higher education has sustained over the past decade. State spending on higher education has decreased by 26 percent since 2008 with Oklahoma leading the nation for the most drastic cuts between 2012 and 2017.  Unfortunately, last year’s boost to PK-12 education funding did not extend to higher education whose budget remained virtually flat from the previous year.

This session the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education has asked for a $101.5 million increase over last year’s budget to help undo budget cuts made over the past decade. Maintaining a robust system of higher education in Oklahoma is vital to our state’s economy.  By 2020, 67 percent of all jobs created in Oklahoma will require some college, a certificate, or a college degree. Legislators would be wise to invest some of this year’s growth revenue back into higher education so our economy can continue to thrive for years to come. 

Funding cuts shift costs to students 

Over the past two decades, a dramatically shrinking share of the higher education budget has come from the state. In 1988, 74.2 percent of the budget for higher education was state appropriated dollars, but in 2019 just 27.2 percent of the budget came from state funding. As a result, Oklahoma colleges and universities have had to shift these costs onto students through increased tuition and fees. From 2009-2017 tuition and fees increased an average of 4.9 percent across Oklahoma’s public colleges and universities. This is especially troubling because a larger percentage of Oklahomans already struggle to pay back student loans than in almost any other state. 

Institutions forced to cut faculty and programs

Funding cuts have not only driven up tuition costs, but they have also forced schools to cut faculty positions, keep salaries low and cut programming. Smaller institutions such as two-year schools and community colleges have been hit the hardest by these cuts because a larger portion of their budgets come from state funding. As a result, these schools have seen the greatest reduction in faculty and program offerings across the state’s institutions. Tulsa Community College was forced to lay off nearly 20 percent of its workforce (200 full-time positions) over a period of three years, along with reducing course offerings. Two-year college faculty have also left positions to teach in PK-12 schools, which can now pay higher salaries as a result of last year’s teacher pay raise. Low faculty salaries have also made it difficult for the state’s flagship universities to attract and retain talent. Oklahoma State University’s faculty salaries are $15,000 below the Big 12 average.

This year, the Regents for Higher Education has asked the state for $50.5 million to restore base operational funding, which would allow institutions to fill faculty positions that have been cut and restore programs. In addition, it requested $38.7 million to increase faculty salaries. 

Cuts hit high school concurrent enrollment and scholarship programs too

Concurrent enrollment programs have increased dramatically over the past decade with more than 13,000 students participating in 2017-2018. These programs allow high school students to enroll in college courses and receive credit that can be used towards college course work after they graduate. The growth in concurrent enrollment programs is promising because they can increase college enrollment and graduation rates. Unfortunately, over the past decade, the state has failed to fully reimburse colleges for the cost of offering these courses, which has forced institutions to make up the difference on their own. In FY18, state institutions needed $10.5 million to cover the cost of concurrent enrollment students, but the state only gave them $2.8 million. Colleges and universities had to come up with an additional $7.7 million to fund the program. Last year, funding was about $1.5 million below what was needed. 

State funding shortfalls have also forced the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education to cut six scholarship programs that help individuals in need attain a college degree. This includes a scholarship designed to address the teacher shortage by offering awards to students who commit to teaching math and science in Oklahoma, along with a tuition waiver for National Guard members. 

To address these needs the State Regents has asked the Legislature for an additional $3.3 million to fully fund concurrent enrollment and $9 million to restore scholarship programs. 

Investing in Oklahoma higher education will boost the economy

Investing in education is the most effective way a state can boost its economy.  On average, states that have a larger share of workers with a college degree are more productive and have higher median wages. Appropriating state revenue to higher education yields an especially good return on the investment, considering that 87.3 percent of Oklahoma residents who graduate with a bachelor’s degree remain in the state and are employed here after they graduate. In fact, for every state dollar invested, the system of higher education generates $9.40 in economic output.

Unfortunately, Oklahoma struggles to send students to and through college. In 2017, just 24.8 percent of Oklahomans had obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to 30.9 percent nationally, placing us 44th in the country.

The good news is that this year the state has the opportunity to confidently invest Oklahoma’s growth revenue back into a system that will yield strong returns in the future. Our institutions of higher education have been strained for the past decade. It is time to give them the funding they need to boost Oklahoma’s college graduation rates and help secure Oklahoma’s economic prosperity. 


Rebecca Fine worked as the Education Policy Analyst and KIDS COUNT Coordinator at OK Policy from July 2018 until December 2020. Originally from New York, she began her career in education as an Oklahoma teacher. Rebecca proudly comes from a family of educators, and spent four years teaching middle school in Tulsa and Union Public Schools. She graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in political science from the University of Rochester and received an M.A. in Educational Policy Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.