Additional budget cuts being considered by Oklahoma lawmakers for higher education next year could have a dramatic impact on the lives of thousands of Oklahoma families and may cause officials to break several promises originally made to students and their parents.
That was the message relayed Monday to members of the Education Subcommittee of the General Conference Committee on Appropriations during legislative hearings on the impact of further cuts to higher education’s 2003-2004 budget.
Since January 2002, Oklahoma higher education has seen its appropriations cut nearly $68 million or 7.9 percent. Officials are concerned about additional cuts of as much as 7.25 percent for next year, cuts that could have a devastating impact on students and families, especially for those students who are enrolled in the state scholarship program, the Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program or OHLAP.
To make matters worse, the funding cuts have come at a time when Oklahoma’s public colleges and universities have been experiencing enrollment growth rates not seen in the state since the early 90s.
Institutions have coped with the budget cuts this year by eliminating hundreds of course sections, increasing class sizes and laying off or furloughing faculty and staff, as well as reducing library hours and student services such as health and counseling. Preparatory classes for “at-risk” students have also been eliminated. This list could grow substantially next year if even deeper cuts are taken.
The elimination of faculty positions has resulted in a domino effect – fewer faculty mean fewer classes, which can increase the cost and length of time necessary for a student to earn a degree. For example, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, already anticipates the delay in graduation of approximately 350 students, causing them and their families to spend an extra $3.1 million for their college education.
“I’m very concerned about the nearly 6,000 students who are projected to receive OHLAP scholarships next year,” Chancellor Paul G. Risser said. “Under the current budget, half of those eligible would not receive the scholarship that they were promised. These students have been working hard since they signed up in the eighth or ninth grade. How can we let them down?”
Risser added that steps to curtail additional budget reductions are critical since 2002 census data is showing that 20.4 percent of Oklahomans 25 years old or over hold at least a bachelor’s degree. Nationally, that figure stands at 26.7 percent, putting Oklahoma 48th in the nation, behind Mississippi and Idaho’s 20.9 percent. And the gap continues to widen.
In addition, the most recent figures show that, including almost 6,000 high school seniors, there are currently around 23,000 students in eighth through 12th grade enrolled in OHLAP. Officials say that each week more and more students are signing up for the program.
Last year, when the state had already experienced significant revenue shortfalls, legislators were still able to appropriate an extra $2.8 million for OHLAP. This year, the State Regents will have spent approximately $4.7 million for the scholarships. However, because of the much publicized growth in the program and the expected increases in tuition next fall, they will need another $6.3 million to fund the program for another year. That figure will grow even more over the next couple of years.
Officials warn that if OHLAP is not appropriately funded over the next few years, the more than 17,000 eighth, ninth, 10th and 11th graders currently enrolled in the program and their families will have to scramble for other means to pay for college or forgo their higher education careers altogether.
“Minimizing cuts to higher education’s budget is absolutely critical if our state expects to make the necessary economic gains to be competitive in this world,” said State Regents’ Chairman Carl Renfro. “I know legislators understand how vital higher education is to the state’s economy and how important it is that they keep their commitments to students. They kept that commitment this year, and we are confident they will do the same next year.”
Oklahoma lawmakers created OHLAP in 1992 but transferred the program to the State Regents’ in 1995. In order to receive an OHLAP scholarship, students must enroll in the program in the eighth, ninth or 10th grade, take the 17 required core courses, maintain at least a 2.5 grade point average and refrain from using drugs and alcohol or committing delinquent acts. To enroll, their families can make no more than $50,000 a year.
Students enrolled in OHLAP typically outperform their peers by posting higher GPAs in high school and better ACT scores. They also have higher college-going rates and lower remediation rates, as well as higher GPAs as college freshmen.
Following today’s hearing, the House conferees will begin meeting on a regular basis until they can agree on an appropriation for higher education. They will then begin negotiations with Senate conferees on a unified plan. Once that is completed, which could take more than a week, the appropriations bill will be sent to the full House and Senate for further debate. Legislators have five weeks remaining in the session to pass the bill and have it ready for Gov. Brad Henry’s signature.