Our dominance in higher education is our greatest asset in competition with other nations. While the United States has less than 6 percent of the world's population, most surveys indicate we have 85 percent to 90 percent of the world's greatest colleges and universities.
It is not a coincidence that our greatest period of economic growth came in the 20 years following the end of World War II. Real incomes of ordinary Americans almost doubled. This growth came as the percentage of our population going to college increased 500 percent because the G.I. Bill of Rights provided a free college education for those who served in the war effort.
It wasn't until Lincoln became president with the passage of the Morrill Act in 1862 that U.S. public higher education really began to develop. In 1800, with a population of 5 million, there were only about 1,000 Americans enrolled in colleges. All of them were at small, expensive, private institutions.
As affordable public higher education developed, college enrollment kept growing and reached over 20 million by 2010.
Now with almost no public debate, we are reversing course. Step by step we are moving to dismantle public higher education. In state after state we are reducing financial support for public colleges and universities. We are transforming great public universities into more expensive private universities which receive only small amounts of public support.
In Oklahoma, the share of the cost of university budgets being paid by students and their families has doubled while the state's share has fallen rapidly. When I first came back to OU to be president in 1994, the state provided 32 percent of the university budget. Now the state provides 15 percent and the percentage continues to fall. The OU Medical School receives less than 7 percent of its budget from the state. State appropriations for higher education in Oklahoma are now $100 million lower than in 2008. In addition, $200 million in uncontrollable cost increases like health insurance have also been absorbed by Oklahoma colleges in four years without help from the state. This is happening even as the CEO of General Electric announced he is bringing a technology center to Oklahoma because of the research strength of our universities.
The result of declining state support for public higher education and cost shifting to students is threatening America's role in the world. In only a decade we have dropped from first place in the world to 12th in the percentage of our young people going on to college. The impact on American jobs and our ability to compete is clear for all to see. In addition, democracies cannot function well without informed and well educated citizens. Continued disinvestment in public higher education gravely threatens our future.
Oklahoma can lead the way in reversing this trend by increasing state appropriations for colleges and universities this year. Public higher education must not disappear. It's up to us to preserve it.
Boren is president of the University of Oklahoma.