Oklahoma's top higher education official said he's optimistic about the state's college completion goals — but only if lawmakers find money to get the job done.
Glen Johnson, chancellor of Oklahoma's higher education system, said Wednesday that higher education officials would need to make a stronger pitch in the upcoming legislative session for increased funding.
Johnson and Gov. Mary Fallin have made college completion a high priority in recent years, setting a statewide goal of an additional 20,400 degrees and certificates awarded in Oklahoma over the next 12 years.
“We can't do that with budget reductions or even flat budgets,” Johnson said.
Speaking Wednesday at the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education's 2012 Legislative Forum, Johnson said the state is already on track to meeting that goal, having surpassed the goal of 1,700 new degrees and certificates in the past academic year.
At a state regents meeting last week, officials announced public colleges and universities in Oklahoma had more than 1,900 more graduates during the 2011-12 academic year than during the previous year.
But Johnson said last year was likely one of the state's easiest in the initiative. Higher education officials expected the best results in the first year of the program because the agency has begun engaging potential students who had previously received little attention.
“The heavy lifting is ahead,” Johnson said. “We all know that.”
The higher education budget is roughly the same as the system's budget for the previous year, and is based on a $955.26 million allocation for higher education that was included in the state's budget for fiscal year 2013.
The budget is $34.7 million less than Johnson requested in a budget proposal at the beginning of the last legislative session. Of that amount, $27.8 million would have gone toward mandatory cost increases, such as rising insurance premiums and utility costs.
Between fiscal years 2009 and 2012, the system saw its budget slashed by 9.4 percent.
During the forum, Rep. T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, said he hopes to see higher education do make a priority of aligning itself with industry needs.
Higher education officials generally do a good job of laying out a legislative agenda and usually are successful in pushing that agenda through the legislature, Shannon said. But Shannon, the speaker-designate of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, said he'd like to see leaders give lawmakers more information on the impact higher education has on the business community.
The link between higher education and private industry in Oklahoma represents one of the state's strongest public-private partnerships, Shannon said. But many lawmakers are unaware of the importance of that partnership.
In many cases, Shannon said, that lack of awareness is largely due to high turnover. Because state legislators work under term limits, each new legislative session brings a new set of lawmakers who may not understand the higher education system's mission.
Oklahoma Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, said the higher education system has done a good job over the past few years of making the best out of diminishing budgets.
Bingman said he was concerned about the issue of student debt upon graduation. In the future, he said, he hopes to see colleges and universities do a better job of giving students information on the salaries they can reasonably expect to earn after graduation, and how large a loan they could expect to pay off on that income.