Last week we released the September edition of Numbers You Need, our monthly recap of statistics that shape Oklahoma. In addition to bad news for the short run–a higher unemployment rate, more people on public support programs, and the eighth straight month of declining state revenues–there’s bad news for the long run. Enrollment in Oklahoma colleges and universities has been essentially flat over the last five years.
Preliminary results for the school year finished in May, 2008-09, show a headcount enrollment (in which all students, part- and full-time alike, are counted as one) of 256,012. That’s down slightly from the previous year and the second lowest enrollment in the last five years.
Overall enrollment is down 1.5 percent from the peak levels of 2003-04 and 2004-05. The decline is all at the four-year college level, where enrollment is down 2.4 percent over five years. Two-year college enrollment has risen slightly, 1.6 percent, in the same period.
Why is this bad news? Because we are not making a dent in our state’s already low education level. That makes it harder to move up the income scale and to attract the high-skilled jobs we’ll need in the future.
In 2006, Oklahoma ranked 39th among the states with only 22.9 percent of adults over 25 holding a four-year college degree. Not coincidentally, we ranked 41st in economic output per person and 12th in percentage of residents in poverty. Those numbers will always be entwined. We must work harder on the one we can affect directly.
There is, however, a glimmer of hope. Earlier this month the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education announced a slight increase in the percentage of high school graduates attending college, now 52.8 percent. There’s also some evidence that enrollment is higher at many state colleges and universities this fall than the last few years. Time will tell whether those numbers pan out and whether it’s any more than a reaction to a tough job market.
Meanwhile, we can and should think hard about how we can do better. We encourage the regents, campus leaders, and state legislators to examine all the factors that could contribute to our low educational attainment–college funding and affordability, high school dropout and achievement levels, better guidance for students, and culture. We can do better and we’ll have to if we want our young people–and our economy–to prosper.