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Policymakers need to continue to invest in higher education

BY GLEN D. JOHNSON Published: April 22, 2012

This is an exciting time on Oklahoma's college and university campuses as a record 32,400 students are projected to graduate this spring, and nearly 90 percent of them are expected to stay in the state and become part of the job-ready workforce that Oklahoma's employers demand. In fact, according to the survey report released earlier this month, the quality of our college and university system is considered the most important business climate strength by the 5,376 Oklahoma business leaders surveyed.

Our state continues to gain national attention for our economic strength and improved competitiveness. A recent study prepared by former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and The State Chamber of Oklahoma shows that our state ranks eighth nationally in higher education affordability and system efficiency and 16th in job growth in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

This is great news in today's global economy where 90 percent of the fastest-growing jobs require a higher education. And our continued record enrollments demonstrate that students and parents understand the value of a college degree — we now have 16,000 more students on our campuses compared with 2008.

Our graduates are on track to contribute their talents and skills to our state's prosperity. But we should also be concerned that the state's financial share in the cost of a student's college education is continuing to decline.

In 1988, state appropriations represented 75.3 percent of public higher education's total revenue. In 2007, the state share dropped to 50.8 percent, and in 2012, the state's share of the cost of a student going to college has shrunk to an all-time low of 40.5 percent.

The economic downturn of the last several years has been particularly difficult: State appropriations have decreased in each of the last four years — totaling 9.4 percent in cuts. The state system has done its share of belt tightening with $347.1 million in cost savings from 2009 to 2013, including $40 million in documented information technology savings. But with record enrollments over the same time period, resources have been stretched to the limit.

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