NORMAN — Although he said he is “guardedly optimistic” about budget talks in the Legislature, University of Oklahoma President David Boren painted a dire picture Tuesday of the state's long-term future if lawmakers don't make higher education a funding priority.
Boren discussed the university's funding outlook, including possible changes to tuition and fees, at a public hearing for students Tuesday.
Boren told students that Oklahoma is effectively dismantling its higher education system, withdrawing state support until public colleges and universities become quasi-private schools funded primarily through tuition, mandatory fees and private donations.
“Without any debate and without anyone in the country realizing it, we are slowly but surely doing away with public higher education in the United States,” Boren said.
Tuesday's hearing provided no definite answers about whether students will see tuition increases in the fall. State colleges and universities will set their tuition rates for the 2013-14 academic year later this summer, after lawmakers and Gov. Mary Fallin reach a budget agreement.
Oklahoma higher education Chancellor Glen Johnson requested a 10.2 percent increase in next year's higher education budget. That increase, which comes to $97.4 million, would primarily go to pay for the state's performance and college completion goals. That category includes costs incurred due to increased enrollment.
Whatever deal lawmakers reach will have a direct impact on how much students pay in tuition and fees, Boren said. The university must pay about $8 million in mandatory cost increases, including faculty promotions, health insurance premiums and utility costs.
After several years of cuts, OU can't simply absorb those cost increases, Boren said. If the state doesn't cover the costs, they will be shifted to students in the form of tuition and fee increases, he said.
“We can't print money,” he said.
During the current fiscal year, the state higher education system received $955.26 million from the state — essentially the same amount it received during the previous fiscal year. That total included $10 million the system received as supplemental funding during fiscal year 2011, but was then included as part of the annual base appropriation.
OU students saw a tuition increase of 3 percent. At the time, Boren said the increase, which was one of the most modest among the state's public colleges and universities, would allow OU to pay for expenses the state had left unfunded without placing undue burden on students.
But Boren said he's alarmed at the overall trend of public disinvestment in higher education.
He noted that state funding makes up about 19 percent of the university's budget this year, down from about 38 percent in 1980.
At the OU Health Sciences Center, state funding makes up just 6.8 percent of the overall budget. Boren questioned whether the medical school should even be considered a public institution.
“It's taking on the attributes of a private medical school,” he said.
Travis Ruddle, an OU senior who attended Tuesday's hearing, said he's concerned about the higher education funding situation in the state. He said he relies on financial aid and merit-based scholarships to go to OU. He said he hasn't had to turn to student loans to pay for school but knows many fellow students who will be in debt at graduation.
Ruddle said he appreciates the scholarships he receives from the university. But many of those scholarships are funded through private donations, and he worries that the same opportunities won't exist for students in the future. Private donors can only do so much, he said.
“It's a huge problem,” he said.