Nearly 500 public colleges and universities, including 12 in Oklahoma, signed on to an initiative that seeks to boost by 3.8 million the number of degrees awarded in the next 14 years.
But leaders also said they'd need help — including more funding from states and the federal government — to get the job done.
Project Degree Completion is a collaborative effort between the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the Association of Public Land Grant Universities. The organizations launched the initiative Tuesday.
Most of Oklahoma's public four-year colleges and universities have signed on to the initiative, as has the Oklahoma Regents for Higher Education.
Under the initiative, colleges and universities that are members of the groups intend to increase the number of college degrees they award each year from an estimated 14.6 million to 18.4 million by 2025. The baseline of 14.6 million degrees is based on the estimated number of college degrees the nation produced last year.
Muriel Howard, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said the initiative is designed to boost the number of Americans who are prepared to go to work in an increasingly technology-based labor market.
Although the average education level of the nation's workforce has increased, Howard said, it hasn't kept pace with industry demand, meaning companies have a difficult time finding qualified employees. That misalignment could have severe economic implications in the future, she said.
Part of the effort involves seeking more funding from states, as well as the federal government. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public Land Grant Universities, said he hoped the initiative would give higher education leaders leverage to argue for greater funding.
Higher education officials nationwide have expressed concern in recent months that state funding hasn't kept up with enrollment growth. 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.
That same trend exists in Oklahoma, where public money represents a shrinking percentage of universities' budgets. In 1980, the University of Oklahoma received 38.1 percent of its budget from the state. Last year, state appropriations accounted for just 18 percent of the university'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, state appropriations made up about 21 percent of the university's budget, as did tuition and fees.
State set goal in 2011
The initiative plays into a larger conversation about college completion that's been under way in Oklahoma and nationwide. Last year, Gov. Mary Fallin and Glen Johnson, chancellor of the Oklahoma Higher Education System, called for an additional 20,400 degrees and certificates awarded in Oklahoma over the next 12 years.
In a statement, Johnson said the new initiative fits well with that ongoing effort.
“We look forward to working with our new partners as we accelerate our efforts to focus on readiness, transform remediation, build bridges to certificates and degrees, enhance adult degree completion, and reward progress and performance,” he said.
Because Fallin's completion effort already has seen some success in the state, the new initiative is a natural extension, said John Feaver, president of the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, one of the universities that signed on to the initiative.
“I don't know that there is a great deal of difference,” Feaver said.
Feaver said he's pleased to see the system focusing on the number of college graduates it produces. But he said he's also concerned that, in focusing on the quantity of degrees, the state puts itself at risk of losing track of the quality of education it provides.
Even as the state commits itself to producing more graduates, Feaver said, universities must keep in mind the needs of students and the state's workforce.