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December 10, 2004 :: Bond Issue, Funding and Scholarships Top State Regents’ Legislative Agenda

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Finding ways to better meet the long-range needs of Oklahoma’s college students and their families tops the priority list for the 2005 legislative session announced recently by the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education.

The State Regents want the Legislature to consider the following for higher education.

“Our goal is to help more students graduate from college,” Chancellor Paul G. Risser said. “These legislative requests will support significant improvements to our campus infrastructures, restore operating budgets to reasonable levels and enhance scholarship resources, all to enable us to produce the number and types of graduates we need for our state’s economy.”

The State Regents recently approved an updated list of 140 projects in 36 communities across the state that would receive funding from the capital bond issue. The projects include new and renovated classrooms; infrastructure expansions and upgrades; new or substantially renovated science and research buildings; and libraries and fine arts centers. The bond would also allow institutions to meet strict Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements and other safety and access requirements.

Risser said estimates show that the various projects around the state could add approximately 4,000 construction jobs in Oklahoma and result in an economic impact of more than $737 million statewide.

Gov. Brad Henry and state lawmakers indicated that they would make passing a capital bond issue for Oklahoma higher education a top priority during the 2005 legislative session.

“Our institutions have pressing capital needs on their campuses that could eventually impact the quality of education they provide to their students. We must work with our state legislators to approve the capital bond issue that will improve education in the years to come,” State Regents’ Chairman Jimmy Harrel said.

Regents also want state lawmakers to increase state funding for institutions and programs in FY06 by $90 million to about $892 million. They say higher education needs the additional funds in response to significant enrollment and mandatory cost increases, faculty reductions and budget cuts since FY02.

“It has now been three years, and colleges and universities are still feeling the effects of those cuts. In addition, we have seen record enrollments across the state system during that same time frame,” Risser said.

Some of the major items needing additional funding next fiscal year include health insurance and utilities ($26.2 million); operating costs for new facilities ($10 million); replacement of lost full-time faculty positions and new positions ($12.8 million); scholarships ($9.7 million); partial-year salary increases ($4.7 million); staff needs, especially academic support and student services ($1.4 million); and endowed chairs ($3.5 million).

A third priority for the State Regents is for the Legislature to find a dedicated funding source for OHLAP, the state scholarship program that provides free college tuition to high school seniors from low- to middle-income families who meet certain academic and behavior requirements.

Since 1996, more than 22,000 eighth through 10th graders have enrolled in OHLAP. Officials estimate that by the year 2008, OHLAP enrollment will increase by another 18,000 students.

Nearly 5,900 college students received an OHLAP scholarship during the 2003-04 academic year. That number is expected to increase to 17,000 by the 2007-08 academic year.

“Because of this program, students who may not have been able to afford a college education can now go to college, earn a degree and make a positive contribution to Oklahoma,” Risser said. “Studies show that companies heavily consider the number of college graduates a state has when deciding to either relocate or expand. Obviously, OHLAP is extremely important for students and the economic future of our state. So we must have the necessary funding to keep this very worthwhile program going for many years to come.”