One of Oklahoma's main challenges in the coming decades will be how it handles its own economic growth, a higher education and business expert said Wednesday.
Richard Petrick, director of the Ohio-based Business Alliance for Higher Education and the Economy, spoke Wednesday at the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber's State of the Schools luncheon.
The issue, Petrick said, is that Oklahoma is facing major growth in its knowledge-based economic sector. While economic growth is an important goal, he said, the state is struggling to produce enough educated workers to keep up with demand.
But Oklahoma is hardly alone, Petrick said — many other states are struggling with similar issues.
“Everyone's talking about this at the state level and the national level,” he said.
Meeting that goal could be a challenge, Petrick said, citing a prediction from Georgetown University's Center for Education and the Workforce that said 57 percent of Oklahoma's workforce would need some kind of postsecondary degree by 2018.
According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, only 22.7 percent of Oklahomans held a bachelor's degree or higher in 2009, the most recent year available. Just 7.4 percent of the population held an advanced degree.
Oklahoma's higher education system falls behind the national average in nearly every performance indicator available, Petrick said, including high school to college participation, college participation among low-income students and college completion rates.
The good news, Petrick said, is that an attitude shift toward higher education is taking hold nationwide, including in Oklahoma. States are beginning to look at higher education funding in terms of financing degree and certification completion rather than financing enrollment.
That shift has been felt in Oklahoma, where a major push toward producing more college graduates has been under way since last year.
Glen Johnson, chancellor of the Oklahoma Higher Education System, has 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, an initiative to boost college completion.
Oklahoma's involvement in Complete College America began in September, when Gov. Mary Fallin called for a 67 percent increase in college degrees and certificates earned in Oklahoma by 2023. Fallin cited a number of groups who were falling through the cracks, including first-generation college students, transfer students, Hispanic and black students and students from low-income backgrounds.
One of the more important changes to overtake higher education is a rethinking of how student incentives are distributed, Petrick said. Traditionally, colleges and universities hand out financial aid on the basis either of need or merit.
That model is flawed, he said, since merit-based aid generally goes to students who would succeed with or without extra incentives, and need-based aid typically doesn't take performance into account.
Oklahoma's state higher education system is a leader in this area, he said. The system's Oklahoma's Promise gives free tuition to high school students who demonstrate financial need and meet a list of behavioral and academic criteria. Not only does the program offer an incentive for those students to go to school, he said, its parameters help prepare the student to succeed in college.
Because those parameters are in place for the program, he said, the program makes better use of the money the system spends on it — another key factor in improving higher education.
“You can throw a lot of money at problems, and money just disappears down a rat hole,” Petrick said. “You have to spend, but you also have to spend wisely.”