Oklahoma’s families counting on Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program (OHLAP) scholarships will be receiving some good news, while other programs and higher education institutions will face major cuts based on the budget that was passed Friday afternoon by the Oklahoma Legislature.
“Our higher education system is coping with an $83 million cut, so sacrifices in other programs and at our institutions had to be made, but the commitment to OHLAP scholarships will be maintained for next year,” said Paul Risser, chancellor of the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education.
“This has been a tough budget year and many agencies took major cuts,” Risser continued. “I am pleased that the legislative leadership worked with us to keep the cut to 3 percent (in addition to the 7 percent cut earlier this year). I think this demonstrates a real willingness to improve higher education funding when possible.”
The recent funding cuts have come at a time when Oklahoma’s public colleges and universities have been experiencing major growth in student enrollment. This is due in part to innovative scholarship programs and college preparation efforts such as Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP).
Nearly 6,000 students are projected to receive OHLAP scholarships next year. If a budget solution had not been found by the State Regents, as many as half of those eligible would not have received the scholarship that they were promised. Many had been working since they signed up in the eighth or ninth grade to meet the grade and citizenship requirements.
It is expected that the number of students who will be qualified for the OHLAP scholarships will continue to increase dramatically in the next few years. There are currently more than 24,000 students in eighth through 12th grade enrolled in OHLAP. The program required an additional $6.3 million to total $11 million this year, and next year approximately $8 million more will be needed to keep pace. Based on current growth patterns, OHLAP could cost $19 million in 2004-05, $27 million in 2005-06, and $37 million in 2006-07.
Program funding that has been suspended includes: Teacher Residency Program; 2004 Summer Academies Program (the 2003 program will not be affected); Pollard Theater/Langston University; George and Donna Nigh Scholarships; and Chiropractic Education Assistance.
Programs that received significant cuts include: the Endowed Chair Program; Oklahoma Tuition and Grant Program (OTAG) – for graduate students only (undergraduate students receiving OTAG funding will not be affected); Oklahoma Museum of Natural History; Fire Service Training; OneNet; and the Quartz Mountain Arts and Conference Center.
The impact of the 9.9 percent cuts on the colleges and universities will vary from institution to institution but are expected to result in significant decreases in student services such as healthcare, counseling, tutoring and job placement. Class sizes may increase, course offerings may decrease and the time it takes to graduate may increase for some students.
“We have worked hard to reduce the impact on Oklahoma families, but we had to find a total of $83 million to cut this year. In the long run, OHLAP, GEAR UP, our Educational Planning and Assessment System (EPAS), and other higher ed programs can help get this state’s economy on track by generating more college graduates,” said State Regents’ Chairman Carl Renfro. “But it is going to require a long term financial commitment on the part of our political leaders to make it happen. I am looking forward to discussions this summer with our lawmakers so we can continue to fund OHLAP without putting the financial health of our higher education system in jeopardy.”
The U.S. Department of Education awarded Oklahoma with a state GEAR UP grant totaling $20.5 million in August 1999. The grant has been matched by more than $25 million from state and partner resources. With funds totaling $45.5 million, GEAR UP receives 45 percent of total funding from the federal government and 55 percent from other organizations.