Over the past two decades, public colleges and universities in Oklahoma have been receiving less and less of their funding from the state.
Now, some higher education leaders worry shrinking state support could hamper Oklahoma's college completion goals.
Since 1980, state funding has accounted for a shrinking percentage of college and university budgets in Oklahoma. At the same time, other funding sources, such as tuition and housing fees, have made up a larger share of universities' funding picture.
During the same period, the funding that goes to higher education has made up a smaller share of the state's overall budget. Higher education makes up 14.8 percent of the state's budget for the current fiscal year, down from 18.6 percent of the budget in the 1980 fiscal year.
At a recent meeting, University of Oklahoma President David Boren told the Oklahoma Regents for Higher Education he was “very, very concerned” about eroding public support for higher education.
“We have an education crisis in this state, and we seem to be oblivious to it,” he said.
College completion has been a watchword of state and federal higher education officials in recent years. Gov. Mary Fallin and Glen Johnson, chancellor of the Oklahoma Higher Education System, have called for an additional 20,400 degrees and certificates awarded in Oklahoma over the next 12 years. That goal is a part of Complete College America, a nationwide initiative designed to boost college completion.
Boren said he's concerned those efforts could be put at risk if state funding for higher education isn't made a higher priority.
Since the 1980 fiscal year, OU has seen tuition and fees overtake state appropriations as the university's largest funding source. In 1980, the university received 38.1 percent of its budget from the state. Just 10.4 percent of the university's budget came from tuition and fees, making it the fourth-largest revenue source.
Last year, state appropriations accounted for just 18 percent of the university's budget. Tuition and fees, the largest revenue generator, made up 27.7 percent of OU's budget.
The shift also exists at Oklahoma State University, where state appropriations accounted for 42.6 percent of the university's budget in 1980 — by far the largest share. Last year at OSU, both state appropriations and tuition and fees made up about 21 percent of the university's budget.
The largest percentage of OSU's budget last year came from auxiliary enterprises, such as residential life, dining services and revenue from use fees at Lake Carl Blackwell. That money accounted for 26 percent of the university's budget.
Boren, whose university has absorbed about $100 million in cuts and cost increases over the past three years, said Oklahoma is in a pattern of “serious erosion of public higher education.” He noted that the OU Center for Health Sciences received only 6.9 percent of last year's budget from the state.
When public funding for higher education shrinks, students are forced to make up the difference in the form of tuition and fee increases. Those increases allow universities to keep their bills paid, he said, but they mean students from lower- to middle-income families are shut out of higher education.
“At what point have we abolished public higher education?” he said.
The same trend appears to exist nationwide. According to a recent study from nonprofit group Demos, state funding for higher education nationwide has increased about $10.5 billion since 1990, but funding per student has declined by about 26 percent during the same period.
The reason for that trend is a dramatic increase in college enrollment nationwide, said Viany Orozco, a policy analyst for Demos. In 2009, 49 percent of high school graduates ages 18 to 24 were enrolled in a higher education program, up from 39 percent in 1990, according to the report. Public colleges and universities bore about 65 percent of that increase.
Even as public colleges and universities are seeing greater numbers of students, Orozco said, they're also seeing a demographic shift among those students.
The enrollment spike over the last decade has been driven in large part by students who might not have considered going to college 10 or 20 years ago, she said, but now see a postsecondary degree as necessary to finding a job. That means those students are more likely to come from lower-income families, so they need more financial assistance to go to college.
Because those students already are struggling to afford school, she said, they're the ones who are hardest hit when universities raise tuition to make up for declining state support. For many students, that may mean working longer hours to help pay the bills, which means taking fewer courses and spending less time studying.
Ultimately, she said, those students could take longer to complete college, making them less likely to graduate at all.
“That only increases their chances of not completing,” she said. “It's a big risk factor.”