In an ideal world, tuition-free, public college education, well-funded by the government, would be the best way to create a more educated, informed citizenry. College-educated people lead healthier lives and make this country and state more prosperous through innovation and creativity. Investing in higher education is paramount for any state that wants to thrive by attracting economic development and improving the quality of life.
But the reality is this: The GOP and their apologists in the Democratic Party have worked steadily to undermine government funding for higher education here and elsewhere. By shifting the burden from government and the overall tax base, political leaders leave public universities no choice but to raise tuition. What’s the alternative? Salaries have to be paid, buildings need electricity, and computers have to be purchased.
The State Regents for Higher Education recently approved tuition hikes ranging from 3.2 percent to 8.2 percent, according to media reports. Students will pay more next school year. Everyone knew it was going to happen. Why?
The most immediate reason is that the Oklahoma Legislature cut higher education funding by 4.8 percent for fiscal year 2012. In order to avoid making drastic cuts to educational programs or turning away students, university leaders have little choice. They can dilute the strength of their programs or make students pay more.
Is there an Oklahoma public university president not concerned about rising tuition rates? They and their governing boards face a dilemma, especially when some lawmakers apparently feel little compunction about gutting funding.
But the larger picture is that many U.S. public colleges are receiving less government funding. In Oklahoma, the state provides about 40 percent of funding for public higher education, which means that tuition costs and enrollment numbers are always a factor in budgeting. Federal stimulus money helped prevent major cuts in higher education here last year, but that money is no longer available. Recently, The Chronicle of Higher Education noted that states have slashed higher-education funding in the last two years, and more cuts are expected. According to the article, Arizona cut such funding by a staggering 22 percent over the last two years, and California colleges face proposed cuts up to 18 percent. Some states have capped enrollment because of the lack of state funding, compared to the number of students who want an education.
Given the impact of the country’s Great Recession, and an anti-education agenda — usually presented with the buzzword “reform” — by a number of state legislatures now dominated by Republicans, higher-education funding at the state level remains at risk. This includes Oklahoma. Public universities here either can raise tuition or face eliminating important programs or not accepting students. The choices are dismal, but the problems are not insurmountable yet.
Hochenauer is an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma and the author of the Okie Funk blog.
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