Oklahoma’s 25 public colleges and universities were among the biggest losers in last year’s budget battle.

Lawmakers cut the state’s higher education budget by $153.4 million, or nearly 16 percent, as part of the Legislature’s work to close a $1.3 billion shortfall during the 2016 session. This led to tuition increases, elimination of degree programs and layoffs across the system.

But college and university leaders are hoping to avoid a similar fate this year when the Legislature again grapples with a significant shortfall. And it appears their strategy will be to use an economic development argument to justify a funding request seeking to restore nearly all of last year’s reductions.

“We are making the case that higher education needs to be a funding priority,” said Glen Johnson, chancellor of the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education. “If we going to meet those jobs needs they tell us are going to hit us in 2020, no one can do that except for higher education.”

Johnson presented the regent’s $957.9 million budget request – a $147.9 million increase over its current funding – as part of a round of budget hearings in front of a House budget subcommittee.

The requests (beyond this year’s appropriations) include:
– $122.7 million for degree-completion programs and initiatives.
– $12.7 million for financial aid programs.
– $11.4 million for construction projects.
– $1.1 million for the restoration of shared services programs.

Johnson said the requests are centered around access and expanding, or at least restoring, the number of degree programs and courses the institutions can offer.

He said this is important since many high-paying fields, such as business, aerospace and and telecommunications, are projected to need more employees in the next several years.

He cited a recent report from the Oklahoma Department of Commerce that 56 of the 100 occupations deemed “critical” by the agency require a college degree.

Even though money will be tight for next fiscal year – the projected shortfall is nearly $900 million – Johnson argued that boosting higher education funds will strengthen the economy and avoid future budget problems.

“Whether it’s a research, regional or two-year college, you’re not going to find many areas in government that bring a better return on investment than higher education,” he said. “It is a big bang for the dollar.”

Higher education is just one of many agencies looking for extra funds during the upcoming session. During the hearing, many lawmakers suggested savings can be found within the existing college and university budget.

This included the often-repeated remark that the institutions spend too much on administration or could save money by consolidating administrative positions.

Johnson responded by saying administrative costs only account for 5.7 percent of the budget – down from 6.6 percent in 2005. He said that several colleges are already sharing resources, including instructors, to save costs.

During last year’s session, Finance Secretary Preston Doerflinger said higher education saw a greater reduction than most other agencies because it was among those that could “absorb” the cuts best.

Those cuts also came when many believed State Question 779 would pass. That proposal, which failed, sought to raise the state’s sales tax to pay for teacher raises and generate about $120 million a year for higher education.

Some lawmakers, including Sen. John Sparks, D-Norman, have said legislators punished higher education in advance on the assumption that SQ779 would pass.

But it is unclear how much this factored into the decision or whether lawmakers will take that into account when the session begins next month. Johnson said without more money, there will be negative effects, including some students taking longer to graduate.

“We got to have the funding so we can offer the courses and students can take the courses on time,” he said. “That saves money for the students and for the parents as well.”

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