Oklahoma higher education officials are hopeful that recent record enrollments and an improved state economy will help convince state lawmakers to restore funding for higher education at levels not seen since early 2002.
The Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education recently approved their fiscal year 2006 budget request that, if appropriated by legislators next spring, could provide an additional $90 million in new funding for the state system of colleges and universities. This fiscal year, the state system received an approximately $34 million increase in state appropriations.
State Regents say their request includes $66 million to restore institutional budgets to the same levels as in FY02. That year, higher education received more than $860 million in state appropriations. Subsequent revenue shortfalls, however, forced state officials to make dramatic cuts in operating budgets throughout state government, including a $92 million cut for higher education.
It has now been three years, and colleges and universities are still feeling the effects of those cuts. The State Regents believe that returning to FY02 funding levels will allow tuition increases to be kept low next fall. Tuition increases have averaged $600 per year for the past two years, and part of the increase has been met with additional student financial aid.
“Our public colleges and universities need adequate funding to meet the needs of more than 28,000 additional students who have enrolled in the state system during the past couple of years. These funds will add and retain faculty, meet rising mandatory costs, provide much-needed funding for maintaining buildings and provide more student support services,” Chancellor Paul G. Risser said.
Risser said the faculty positions would cost institutions approximately $12.8 million. Higher health insurance premiums and utilities – all mandatory costs – would require about $26.2 million more, he said.
Salary increases, operating costs for facilities and other staff needs, particularly in academic support and student services, make up the remainder of the $66 million.
Risser noted an improved Oklahoma economy and higher education’s importance to continuing growth as reasons for state officials to restore higher education’s funding.
“Oklahoma’s economy will continue to improve with the help of a more-educated workforce driving our state’s economy,” Risser said.
Another priority in the State Regents’ request for additional funding is the shoring up of several scholarship and grant programs. A minimum of $8 million is required for the Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program (OHLAP), and $700,000 is needed for the Academic Scholars Program, which is designed to keep Oklahoma’s academically gifted students in Oklahoma and to attract other academically gifted students to the state. State Regents also requested $1 million more for the
Oklahoma Tuition Aid Grant (OTAG) program to be used as required matching funds for $480,000 in federal funding. The $480,000 was originally lost as part of FY04 budget cuts.
Higher education officials say an additional request of up to $3 million for the OTAG program may be pursued at a later date. The extra monies would allow the State Regents to raise the maximum OTAG award from $1,000 to $1,100 and to provide funding for an additional 1,000 student awards.
The FY06 budget request also includes additional funding for the Brain Gain accountability initiative, the Endowed Chairs program, the Math and Science Teacher Shortage Employment Incentive Program and the Research Matching Program. Additional funds are also needed to support capital expenditures on various campuses that do not receive Section 13 funds.
Section 13 funds come from a statutorily defined program that designates 13 institutions to receive interest earnings on the reserve fund held by the Oklahoma Land Commission. Money designated for these institutions comes from interest from the trust fund as a direct result of sales, leases, mineral rights, etc. associated with these school lands. Twelve of Oklahoma’s public colleges and universities do not receive Section 13 funds.