MIDWEST CITY — No matter who the winner is, this year's presidential election stands to have a major impact on a range of areas, including higher education.
Oklahoma political and education leaders discussed what that impact could be and what they hope to see come from the election during a panel discussion Friday moderated by Neil Conan, host of NPR's “Talk of the Nation.”
The panel was part of the Oklahoma Association of Community Colleges' annual conference. Panelists included former Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Turpen, former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys, Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, and Rep. Emily Virgin, D-Norman.
Turpen, a Democrat, described himself as a single-issue voter, with that issue being student loans. He serves as a member of the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education and said he's concerned that Oklahoma students are graduating from college with tens of thousands of dollars in debt.
When he graduated from the University of Tulsa, Turpen said, he held $40,000 in student loans. It took 10 years to pay them back.
Turpen said he's encouraged by the fact that President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama have had the same experience — they each took out thousands of dollars in loans to pay for school, and have since paid them back.
That experience likely allows the president to relate better to students who are going through the same thing today, Turpen said.
Calling education access one of the greatest civil rights battles of today, Jolley said he's concerned the federal government plays too large a role in education.
Common and higher education have traditionally been left to the states, he said — Oklahoma's constitution requires that lawmakers provide a sound public education system, and roughly 55 percent of the state's budget goes to education.
The federal government has more resources available, he said, and devotes some of those resources to education.
But despite that, Jolley said, education should remain primarily a state function.
Humphreys, a Republican, said government is most effective at a local level. Because state governments are closer to the colleges and universities they operate, they generally have a better sense of their needs.
Virgin said she's interested to hear Republican challenger Mitt Romney's ideas regarding Pell Grants.
She noted that increased funding to the federal financial aid program has spelled growth in college graduation rates.
Those graduates go on to play a major role in the economy, she said, because they provide trained, qualified workers to American companies.
This is a particular issue in Oklahoma, she said, where commerce and higher education leaders have predicted a shortage of qualified workers in the years to come if graduation rates aren't boosted.