Oklahoma among worst states for higher education cuts, harming students who already face the greatest barriers

Even before COVID-19 brought new challenges to state education systems, a new report out this week shows that Oklahoma was one of 6 states that cut higher education funding by more than 30 percent between 2008 and 2019: Oklahoma cut higher education allocations by 35.3 percent, or $3,515, per student between 2008 and 2019. Oklahoma had the nation’s third largest percentage decrease in state higher education funding during that period, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report released Feb. 17. 

Oklahoma’s failure to invest in higher education during the last decade has contributed to rising college tuition prices, which the report shows has been particularly harmful to students of color and those with low incomes.

The average tuition at Oklahoma’s public four-year institutions grew by 31.8 percent, or $2,153, between 2008 and 2019, which was slightly less than the national average of about 35 percent. At Oklahoma’s community colleges, which typically serve a greater share of Pell Grant recipients, tuition grew by 47 percent, or $1,403, between 2008 and 2019, which exceeded the national average increase of 37 percent. 

Tuition increases, weak wage growth, and the diminishing value of financial aid are making college less affordable and less accessible to Oklahomans of color and those with low incomes. In 2018, Oklahoma’s state college and university public tuitions cost the average Black household 41 percent of their incomes – compared to 26 percent of the average white family’s income. The same tuition cost Latinx households 32 percent of their incomes. Nationally, tuition at public four-year universities accounted for 24 percent of the median household income. 

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Oklahoma lawmakers in May trimmed $31.6 million from its higher education appropriation for the current budget year ending June 30, 2021. Lawmakers have until May to set the higher education appropriation for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

“Oklahoma’s decade-long disinvestment in higher education has shifted an ever-growing burden on the backs of students who are pursuing a college degree,” said Ahniwake Rose, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute. “Oklahoma’s shrinking higher education investment — coupled with the resulting tuition increases — have especially hit our students of color and Oklahoma families with low incomes. These are our same friends and neighbors who have been hardest hit by the health and economic crisis stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. For a state with Top 10 aspirations, cutting its investment in education is both short-sighted and counterintuitive. Without new and substantial investments in higher education, our students and their families will face growing student debt.” 

The pandemic already appears to have worsened existing financial barriers to college. Nationally, undergraduate enrollment decreased by more than four percent between the fall 2019 and 2020 semesters. While enrollment at Oklahoma’s flagship four-year universities has remained stable during the past decade, most other state colleges and universities continue to see declining enrollments with the statewide headcount decreasing more than 17 percent between 2012 and 2019

Students who are low-income, Black or Latinx, unemployed, or single parents have been more likely to cancel their college plans in the face of rising costs. Students with low incomes are also more likely to take on and struggle to repay college loans, a situation that the ongoing recession could worsen absent stronger state investments.

“State lawmakers need to take bold action to reverse these trends. If they don’t, we could see a backwards shift in education attainment and greater levels of racial and economic inequality,” said Victoria Jackson, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Senior Policy Analyst and author of the report. “Tuition has gone from making up a quarter of public colleges and universities’ revenues in 1988 to about half of their revenues today. State cuts to higher education, especially those enacted over the last decade, have forced students and their families to shoulder the costs. And many families, particularly families of color, cannot afford to do so.”

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David Hamby has more than 25 years of experience as an award-winning communicator, including overseeing communication programs for Oklahoma higher education institutions and other organizations. Before joining OK Policy, he was director of public relations for Rogers State University where he managed the school’s external communication programs and served as a member of the president’s leadership team. He served in a similar communications role for five years at the University of Tulsa. He also has worked in communications roles at Oklahoma State University and the Fort Smith Chamber of Commerce in Arkansas. He joined OK Policy in October 2019.

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