For the next decade or so, Glen Johnson's primary mission will be to get more Oklahomans through college.
Johnson, chancellor of the Oklahoma State System of Higher Education, is a key player in Oklahoma's efforts to produce more college graduates in the coming years.
The initiative, a part of a nationwide effort called Complete College America, seeks to help Oklahomans earn 1,700 more college degrees and certifications each year for the next 12 years. The initiative will be a major theme in higher education in Oklahoma for the next several years, Johnson said.
“Clearly, that's our top priority,” he said. “That will not just be our top priority this year, but for the next 12 years.”
Johnson spoke at a Senate budget hearing Thursday. During the hearing, he told lawmakers the initiative will require the higher education system to increase collaboration with the common education system to ensure Oklahoma's high school students are prepared for college.
Oklahoma's involvement in Complete College America began in September, when Gov. Mary Fallin called for a 67 percent increase in college degrees and certificates earned in Oklahoma by 2023. Fallin cited a number of groups who were falling through the cracks, including first-generation college students, transfer students, Hispanic and black students and students from low-income backgrounds.
Johnson said the initiative is crucial to Oklahoma's livelihood, as more education can lead to higher income and better economic performance around the state.
Part of the problem of boosting Oklahoma's graduation rate already has been solved, Johnson said. Oklahoma's college campuses have seen record enrollment over the past five semesters, he said, which means more potential graduates.
However, he said, those record enrollment numbers have come at a time of economic woes. Increases in enrollment mean increases in costs, including the need for more faculty members. But rather than keeping pace with the expanding need, the higher education system's budgets have been cut by 9.4 percent over the past four years. Those cuts have caused problems on Oklahoma's college campuses, he said.
“It's created a lot of pressure on our campuses for our faculty, for our administration,” he said.
Johnson said he's optimistic about the funding picture for the upcoming year. Higher education officials will be asking lawmakers to consider the impact education can have on Oklahoma's economy when making decisions about allocation. Those decisions are particularly important at a time when the state is seeking to boost its graduation numbers, he said.
“This is a critical year, quite frankly,” he said.