Providing health insurance for faculty, staff and other support personnel is a priority next year for Oklahoma’s public colleges and universities, especially at a time when health insurance and other mandatory costs are rising dramatically with no let up in sight. In addition, officials expect funding for several of the state’s scholarship programs to climb next year as more students become eligible.
To help keep up with these and other increases, the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education today approved a request for an extra $51.3 million in state appropriations for next year, bringing higher education’s total request to $866.4 million. The request is 6.3 percent more than this year’s adjusted appropriation of $815.1 million. In addition, the State Regents approved $400.4 million in budget needs which, if funded, would allow institutions to approach the funding levels of their peers in other states as well as fund all endowed chairs eligible for matching money.
“Nearly 15 years ago when I first came to this great state to serve as chancellor, the State Regents and I made it our mission to create a nationally competitive system of higher education,” Chancellor Hans Brisch said. “We have made great strides over the years, and we are now enjoying the fruits of our labor. But we must not let those gains fall by the wayside. It is imperative that Oklahoma’s public higher education system receives the necessary funding that will help keep our system and the state moving forward well into the 21st century.”
Mandatory costs increases in areas such as health and dental insurance, risk management insurance, teachers retirement and utilities make up nearly one half of the priority budget request, or $25 million. Health and dental insurance costs alone will increase 18 percent during calendar year 2003.
State Regents are also asking lawmakers for an additional $7.7 million to fund the Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program (OHLAP), Oklahoma Tuition Aid Grant program (OTAG) and Academic Scholars program. A total of $5.5 million would go toward OHLAP, which provides free tuition to high school seniors who meet certain academic and behavioral guidelines. The extra scholarship funding is needed to meet the demand of approximately 3,000 additional OHLAP students in FY2004, as well as for students eligible for Academic Scholars and OTAG, Brisch said.
“We want to be fiscally responsible under the current budget restrictions but also sensitive to students’ needs,” Brisch said. “Providing Oklahomans access to the state’s public higher education institutions is extremely important to the State Regents, especially during these challenging economic times. Some states have already cut student financial aid from their budgets, but we have not. We would like to keep it that way.”
The State Regents took another big step in their Brain Gain 2010 goal of significantly increasing the number of college graduates in Oklahoma by asking for an additional $13.5 million to reward institutions for their graduation and retention efforts. Regents allocated approximately $2.3 million to institutions in FY2003 but hope to reach their target of approximately $16 million, which equates to 2 percent of the total state support for public higher education.
Another immediate need for Oklahoma higher education is $5.1 million to operate new facilities coming online in FY2003 and FY2004 on various campuses across the state. Officials contend that following the most recent budget cuts, appropriations for FY2003 were not enough to operate the new facilities this year. They are hopeful that $2 million will be earmarked for that area. An additional $3.1 million will be required for those campus facilities opening in FY2004.
Oklahoma higher education is still reeling from the effects of the $36.2 million reduction announced in September. Many institutions have already eliminated nearly 600 positions, mostly temporary and unfilled faculty and staff positions, and will also cancel approximately 700 course sections during intersession and the spring semester. Late last week, the A&M Board of Regents approved employee-furlough plans for Langston University and Connors State College to save money.
Some colleges and universities have already dipped into their cash reserves to minimize the impact of the reductions and have reduced purchases for equipment, supplies and materials, and travel.
The budget crisis may get worse before it gets better. The Office of State Finance has already requested an assessment from the state’s public colleges and universities concerning the impact of an additional $40.7 million reduction in FY2004. College administrators have indicated that further cuts of that magnitude would have severe consequences for Oklahoma higher education, resulting in more than 1,000 faculty and staff positions and course sections being eliminated; additional furloughs; and a reduction of tuition waivers in the millions of dollars.
The cuts come at a time when Oklahoma’s public colleges and universities are experiencing near-record enrollments in both total headcount and the number of credit hours students are taking. Preliminary figures show that there are approximately 8,500 more students attending college this semester than there were in fall 2001 and nearly 16,000 more than in fall 2000. And the trend is expected to continue throughout the next fiscal year.
“Our public colleges and universities are facing the challenge of serving thousands upon thousands of new students with less money this year and possibly next year,” State Regents’ Chairman Carl Renfro said. “Having a quality higher education system requires money, and we are hopeful that the Legislature will continue to see higher education as the engine that drives our state’s economy and will look at us in a favorable way when appropriations are announced at the end of the legislative session.”