It’s been a tough 10 years for Oklahoma’s public colleges and universities.
Appropriations fell 26% in three years and remain at levels not seen in two decades. Enrollment at most schools sagged, particularly in teacher education programs that for many have been their bread and butter.
Even more problematic, the notion that a college education isn’t worth the time and money as “career training” became the policymakers’ catch phrase.
And that’s not even the bad news.
Long-term demographics, combined with a tight labor market, are producing some fairly gloomy enrollment projections for public and private higher education. Economist Nathan Grawe predicts a 15% decline in the number of traditional college-age Americans beginning in 2016, and up to a 20% decline in college enrollment.
Grawe traces this to sharp drops in fertility rates associated with the 2007-2008 recession and its lingering effects.
The outlook for the middle part of the United States is not as gloomy as for the northeast and to some extent the Pacific Coast, but community colleges and regional universities are expected to have a particularly difficult time. The belief, according to an article by Walter Pearson of the University of Loyola-Chicago, is that growing economic inequality will preserve a high-income candidate pool for elite universities while making higher education more financially problematic for the average family.
Most of Oklahoma’s community colleges and universities have seen stagnant or declining enrollment in recent years. They also were harder hit than Oklahoma’s two flagship universities by the state’s recent revenue shortfalls and appropriations because they have less access to other funding.
Although there has been discussion of restoring those state funds, the outlook is not favorable. After a shot of adrenaline last year, state revenue is flattening out and historically higher education has not been an appropriations priority.
Northeastern State University, for instance, has seen appropriations go from 45% of its primary budget to less than one-third currently. One result is an administration that has to spend more and more time looking for money.
“We’ve been working very hard to raise a lot of money,” said NSU President Steve Turner.
A current campaign, one of only two or three in the school’s history, has brought in more than $25 million — far more than any previous drive.
At Tulsa Community College, the past few years have been beneficial in one sense, President Leigh Goodson said. They’ve made the college think closely about everything it does.
“We had to really look at our budget,” Goodson said. “Decide what were the priorities, what could be removed as a priority. What was not a priority and we could stop doing. And there were some things we stopped doing.”
Everything from printing to allocation of faculty was re-examined. Goodson thinks the result is an organization more focused on students. The school hired more academic advisers, preserved full-time faculty slots and eliminated administrative positions.
“Functions that were student-facing were the highest priority,” Goodson said.
Historically, community colleges have enrolled a large number of part-time students and students on fairly aimless academic paths. In 2015, TCC students were taking on average 89 hours to complete 60-hour associate degree programs.
Now the average is 78, a change reflected in a 20% increase in the number of associate degrees conferred from 2016 to 2019 despite little difference in overall enrollment.
This fits into the general trend to compress education. Concurrent enrollment, which allows high school seniors and some juniors to take college courses, is currently very popular with lawmakers as well as parents — so much so that there was talk at the Capitol last session of letting sophomores participate.
Advanced Placement, another popular way for high school students to earn college credit, has been around for years. Online learning is growing.
While perhaps sometimes beneficial to students, these trends are not necessarily in colleges and universities’ financial interests. Completing degrees more quickly means less time on campus, lower enrollment and less money for the schools.
And they may challenge higher education’s traditional mission.
“People talk about ‘career readiness,’ ” said NSU’s Turner. “The fact is we’ve been preparing people for careers a long time. ... (But) we also have a responsibility to prepare them to be good citizens.”
Turner said schools like NSU do that by bringing together people from different backgrounds and perspectives and introducing them to different ways of thinking.
“We’re not just preparing them for a job, we’re preparing them for life.”
As Turner points out, the idea that college is no longer worth the cost is not borne out by the facts. Of the 100 “most critical” occupations identified by the Governor’s Council for Economic and Workforce Development, the first 39 require at least a bachelor’s degree. Pearson, in his article, says college degrees will matter more, not less, in the future.
“I would say there will always be a need for putting people together in a room to solve a problem,” said Turner.