Twelve Oklahoma colleges and universities are part of a national initiative to increase the number of degrees awarded over the next 14 years. This is a worthy goal. However, those touting the effort hinge its success largely upon increasing taxpayer appropriations. There is little discussion of using technology to increase efficiency and lower costs while serving a larger group of students.
That's disappointing because online learning is growing in the world of higher education. L. Rafael Reif, president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal of that school's venture into online education. Since last December, 150,000 people from 160 countries have signed up for MIT's online course content. Reif wrote, “Online education holds the key to making residential education better and less expensive even as it promises to offer education to many millions more people.” He believes providing courses online for a small fee can ultimately boost the school's on-campus efforts as well.
In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry has called for tying 10 percent of a university's funding to graduation rates. Perry has also called for universities to develop a $10,000 bachelor's degree, a goal that nine schools have embraced. According to its student newspaper, The University of Texas-Arlington is collaborating with Tarrant County College and local high schools to allow students to complete 24 credit hours of dual-credit college courses during their junior and senior years in high school, attend TCC and then UTA, reaping a bachelor's degree for $10,000 in the process.
If schools as prestigious as MIT can explore lower-cost online learning, why can't Oklahoma colleges? If a $10,000 degree is possible in Texas, why not in Oklahoma? According to The Institute for College Access and Success, 56 percent of Oklahoma students currently graduate with an average of $20,708 in student loan debt.
Instead, Oklahoma college officials often seem focused on maintaining the current system structure and associated revenues. In 2005, OU suffered a public-relations embarrassment after requiring most freshman students to live on campus, including those residing within 50 miles who were previously exempt from that mandate. The university backed off after public outcry from students trying to save on college expenses by living at home.
Oklahoma college officials note that state appropriations account for a smaller percentage of their funding today than in 1980, but those statistics are misleading. State colleges no longer require legislative approval for tuition increases — something that didn't occur in the 1980s. Between 2003 and 2007, tuition and fees at Oklahoma universities increased by more than 50 percent. Rates have continued to climb since then. State appropriations can comprise a smaller percentage of the total budget even when lawmakers increase taxpayer funding.
Furthermore, in-state tuition and fees at OU in 1980 were $1,713 (adjusted for inflation). Today, they're $7,340. At OSU, tuition and fees jumped from an inflation-adjusted $1,677 to $7,441 today. That's an increase of more than 300 percent, after inflation, at both schools.
The forces driving more students to obtain a college education to get 21st Century jobs also allow colleges to better control costs while increasing enrollment and preserving quality. Other business models have changed since Oklahoma statehood; there's no reason our higher education system can't do the same.