The recently announced $7.1 billion Oklahoma budget deal for next fiscal year short changes higher education at a time when a college degree is becoming more essential than ever.
As media pundits have pointed out, parents and students will undoubtedly have to make up for the more than $24 million cut to higher education through the raising of tuition and fees, but there will be no improvement to what some analysts refer to as “the product.” This means, for one thing, no or limited additional faculty lines.
The cut will be likely distributed evenly throughout the higher education system, and it wouldn’t be surprising if tuition and fee hikes soon follow. This has been a pattern for many years now when it comes to public higher education throughout the country as many states continue to cut funding to colleges and universities.
Cuts to higher education here and elsewhere mean higher tuition, which translates into higher student debt. It also prices many students out of a degree or places them in debilitating debt after they graduate. In a state such as Oklahoma, which has a low college graduation rate, it doesn’t bode well for the overall future economy. The state needs a better-educated work force to help the economy thrive, but that takes investment.
An income tax cut from 5.25 to 5 percent scheduled to go into effect in January will take an estimated $50 million or so out of the budget, which would have covered the cut to higher education. The average middle class household will pay an estimated extra $29 to $31 less ANNUALLY in income tax. That’s it. Wealthy households will benefit much more, of course, so it’s simply true that the poor and the middle class will get stuck with higher college tuition to make the rich even richer.
The apologists for cuts to higher education will say that Oklahoma still has overall low tuition rates when compared nationally and that the cut is minimal given the budget shortfall of $611 million. They will also use some version of “money isn’t the answer to everything” when it comes to education. But those remain shortsighted and reductionist arguments in a state that historically has not provided adequate funding for education. Oklahoma should be investing much more in both K-12 and higher education to improve the quality of life here. That would do more than tax cuts to attract new businesses and to entice people to come live here.
Study after study through the years have shown that college graduates not only make more money in their lifetimes than non-college graduates but also lead healthier and more enriching lives. One recent study showed that the gap between what college graduates earn and what non-college graduates earn is at an all-time high.
Studies have also shown through the years that Oklahoma lags behind the national average in its number of college graduates.
What’s especially distressing about the higher education cut is that it appears the budget situation could remain stagnant or even become worse the following fiscal year because of the use of what is referred to as “one-time money” this coming fiscal year. So this could mean even more cuts down the road.
The budget doesn’t cut K-12 education but funding remains so flat that the state will continue to deal with a teacher shortage because of low salaries.
Some lawmakers may herald this budget as a good compromise, but usually when a state cuts funding to one of its education systems it shows a disregard for the future. This is one of those times.