College funding cuts hurting Oklahoma's future, officials say


Higher education officials say misinformation fueled the historic funding cuts that will hurt both students and the future of Oklahoma.

Funding to the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education was reduced nearly 16 percent for fiscal year 2017. That followed a series of cuts the previous year.

“Over two years we’ve lost $265 million out of the higher education system, and we have more kids in school than we’ve ever had, we’re graduating more than we ever have,” said Regent Jay Helm, of Tulsa.

Regents and college presidents urged lawmakers to keep funding cuts to a minimum, but failed.

“They just don’t seem to understand the long-term harm they are doing to the state of Oklahoma,” Helm said.

Chancellor Glen Johnson said false information about higher education’s financial resources is partly to blame.

“Some are saying that this is not anything that’s detrimental to higher education because tuition and fees can offset it. That is not the case,” Johnson said.

Regents approved increases in tuition and mandatory fees that will generate $87 million across all campuses, but cuts to the 25 public colleges and universities totaled $136 million.

Seminole State College President Jim Utterback said the 8.7 percent tuition hike at his campus will replace only about 21 percent of the $1.3 million in state funding that was cut.

To make up the difference, institutions are cutting faculty and staff, programs and activities.

Oklahoma City Community College has 64 fewer positions and eliminated two popular community programs, the Aquatic Center and Arts Festival Oklahoma, President Jerry Steward said.

“We are very lean. We do not have any cushion left,” he said.

President Larry Rice said faculty and staff at Rogers State University, who haven’t had a raise in eight years, are being furloughed one day a month. Up to 60 programs may be eliminated this fall, he said.

Carl Albert State College eliminated 24 full-time positions, cut programs and suspended men’s and women’s basketball, President Jay Falkner said.

Nearly one-fourth of the workforce was eliminated at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College, and benefits have been cut for those who remain, President Jeff Hale said.

Reserve funds

Amanda Paliotta, vice chancellor for budget and finance, said administrators have had to use their reserves to fund operations.

Those who crafted the state budget said the reserves were one reason higher education could handle the large cut.

Regents policy requires each institution to keep 8.3 percent of its budget (one month’s operating expenses) on hand to ensure operations would continue in case of an emergency. More than two-thirds of the colleges and universities are below that.

Northeastern State University President Steve Turner said he had been building up the reserves to replace an antiquated technology system, but he had to use $2 million of that to cover operations.

Even so, 58 vacant positions at NSU won’t be filled this year.

“We’re going the wrong way and we’re getting there fast,” Turner said. “That’s 58 Oklahomans who won’t have jobs.”

The Higher Learning Commission, which provides accreditation for Oklahoma’s schools, requires that they keep even more in reserve — 10 percent — to ensure sustainability of programs.

“They’re going to look at Oklahoma and they’re going to downgrade the whole state because the state Legislature did not fund higher ed in a proper way,” Regent Helm said. “These are the consequences of the failure of the Legislature.”

Oklahoma’s future

Regent Andy Lester, of Edmond, said critics of higher education need to offer real solutions for saving money.

Suggesting universities empty reserve funds intended for emergencies and use foundation funds that donors earmarked for specific projects and scholarships is not a solution, he said.

“I’m willing to talk with anybody,” Lester said. “Let’s talk about specifics. Let’s talk about bettering the system, all of that’s good. And if there are ways we can do that and save money, great.”

Several officials said the budget cuts threaten the ability to educate enough people fast enough to meet Oklahoma’s workforce needs.

Gov. Mary Fallin launched Complete College America in 2011 with the goal of increasing the number of degrees and career credentials awarded statewide by 67 percent in 12 years.

Fallin announced in September the state had exceeded its annual goal for the third consecutive year, but said a lot more work must be done “to make sure we have a relevant, educated, skilled workforce.”

Regents and administrators said it may be impossible to reach the CCA goal with reduced faculty and resources.

President Burns Hargis said Oklahoma State University is looking at capping enrollment in engineering programs — despite the need for more engineers in Oklahoma — because lack of funding will limit the number of faculty.

He said universities must offer competitive pay.

“Faculty drain to other states is a big concern,” Hargis said. “You will lose the best faculty.”

The University of Central Oklahoma has grown to 17,000 students, but can’t continue to grow, President Don Betz said.

“It will be difficult to meet the demand beyond that number,” Betz said. “The flow of graduates to help grow the state is endangered.”

The continued cuts in funding to higher education are hurting the future of Oklahoma, said Regent Jody Parker, of Tulsa.

“It doesn’t come without a consequence,” Parker said, “and the essential consequence is we can’t do our job to graduate as many students as requested by the leadership.”

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