The Journal Record
June 19, 2018
OKLAHOMA CITY – Although the Oklahoma Legislature avoided cuts to the state’s higher education institutions, many will continue to raise tuition.
When lawmakers approved the state’s budget in April, they prevented cuts to all state agencies. The Oklahoma Regents for Higher Education, the state agency overseeing Oklahoma’s colleges and universities, had been sustaining steep cuts for years before that.
The flat state appropriation was enough of a boon to prevent tuition hikes at some schools, but others said they had no option. A static allotment amounts to a cut when considering that costs for all materials – from toilet paper to chemistry lab equipment – increase persistently. For some universities, decreases in enrollment have steadily decreased a vital revenue stream.
Individual boards of regents will be meeting throughout the week. The University of Oklahoma Board of Regents met on Tuesday. President-designate Jim Gallogly said the university would be taking a new direction, one that doesn’t involve tuition hikes.
“Our university has been operating in the red the last couple of years,” he said in an interview. “One would think it might be wise to go in and increase tuition. Frankly, we’ve been asking our students to pay increase after increase after increase.”
He said the institution needs to maintain its accessibility to students, and placing costs on them won’t achieve that. Officials need to seek inefficiencies before burdening students, he said, and that is going to take some time.
“We’ll hold tuition this year and see what we will do,” he said.
Southeastern Oklahoma State University will also opt out of a hike, said President Sean Burrage. This will be the first year in several that the school has had the option.
He said aggressive cost savings started in 2015 when the future seemed bleak for state finances. The next year, higher education saw a midyear cut. In addition to increases in tuition, administrators turned to cutting back on purchases, early retirements and leaving positions empty.
“We’ve probably cut salaries, wages benefits in the range of $1 (million)-$2 million in the next budget year,” he said. “At the end of the day, despite how the Legislature funds us, it’s our priority to provide the lowest possible tuition rates to our students.”
He said graduate program enrollment is increasing, up 3,000 credit hours this year, and that is creating revenue that hedges against hikes.
For some of the state’s regional universities, tuition increases are still necessary. East Central University President Katricia Pierson said her school plans to request an overall 3.1 percent increase of tuition and fees combined. She said that even with a flat state appropriation, revenue is decreasing.
“Tuition and fees are more than half of our budget, closer to two-thirds,” she said. “Our enrollment has been declining a little bit every year. There are just not as many students in this area. We have to increase just to stay flat with our costs. And our costs don’t stay flat.”
She said that like most other organizations, the university is facing growth in health insurance costs and utilities. Classroom materials – especially those used in science and technology classes – become more expensive every year.
“With academic programming, to help students learn new technologies, that costs money,” she said. “When you’re being cut, it’s hard to help them.”
And although there was no decrease in state funding this year, seeing cuts for several years forced administrators to defer maintenance, making upgrades more expensive. Daily operations have been seeing increases as well.
“Even paper goods, toilet paper, things you don’t think about, those costs increase,” she said “When you’ve got 4,000 people consuming those types of things, you can’t stand still. The budget won’t stay flat.”
Rogers State University, which is under the OU Board of Regents’ purview, requested an overall tuition and fees increase of 4.8 percent on Tuesday. Similarly, spokesman David Hamby* said that static state funding can’t compensate for other revenues decreasing.
“I think that we have seen a trend, not only here in Oklahoma, but around the nation, that the regional universities are looking for students,” he said. “And we, as regionals, are not seeing the same growth that the comprehensive (universities) are.”
He said the administration has also turned to personnel for cost savings in an effort to prevent students from bearing the brunt of the costs. University employees are required to take one furlough day a month.
* This story was edited at 9:41 a.m. June 20 to correct David Hamby’s title.