Is the cost of college growing so fast that it’s leaving some Oklahomans without an opportunity to get a degree?
The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education recently released a report, "Measuring Up 2008: The National Report Card on Higher Education," that gave flunking grades when it comes to college affordability to 49 states, including Oklahoma. Only California received a passing grade.
Oklahoma is part of a national trend in recent years to raise college tuition and fees, and no one should fault higher education administrators who must pay the bills. Still, there are ominous signs the state will fall even further behind in the nation in producing college graduates. This is definitely bad news for the state.
Here is how the cost of attending Oklahoma colleges is described in the report:
Higher education has become less affordable for students and their families.
Poor and working-class families must devote 37% of their income, even after aid, to pay for costs at public four-year colleges.
Financial aid to low-income students is low. For every dollar in Pell Grant aid to students, the state spends only 41 cents.
So does this affect enrollment in Oklahoma?
College opportunities for young and working-age adults are fairly low.
The likelihood of enrolling in college by age 19 is only fair, and a low percentage of working-age adults are enrolled in higher education.
Oklahoma’s higher education officials were quick to point out that other reports show the state offers affordable college education when compared to most other states.
So is decent access to higher education in the state in jeopardy? Last year, for example, tuition went up by about 10 percent. Some administrators are certainly concerned about the issue. Higher education officials say they want to freeze tuition next year, but in order to do so they need $80.4 million more in state funding. Will there be enough money in the state budget to fund the increase during these grim economic times, and will the GOP-dominated legislature approve it? Recent tax cuts in Oklahoma that primarily benefited wealthy people have compounded the problem.
The legislature should fund the increase, of course, but that’s only a short-term solution. What’s needed in higher education right now in Oklahoma and across the nation is a major mindset change. Public universities and colleges need to discard the so-called “corporate model” of education and rejuvenate shared governance on campuses. Shared governance allows all campus stakeholders—administrators, faculty, students, staff—to participate in setting the direction and goals of a particular, taxpayer-supported university. This broadens the cultural and political impact of universities. It gives them more presence in their communities, and this increases the likelihood the communities will then want to invest more tax dollars in higher education.
The country faces a deep and grave financial crisis right now. Taxpayers are bailing out investment banks and perhaps the nation’s auto industry because the business leadership in this country has been incredibly abysmal and predictably immoral. (This comes, of course, after the government gave the country’s wealthiest citizens huge tax cuts.) The ideology that free, unregulated markets create a sustainable economic system has been thoroughly debunked. Is there anything even left to discuss at our nation’s MBA schools besides how to get a taxpayer bailout?
What the public doesn’t readily know is that higher education administrators throughout the country have increasingly embraced a companion philosophy over the last two decades or so. This means many of our public university campuses have adopted a top-down managerial style, created a top heavy management staff, privatized as much as possible, given business professors higher salaries because of so-called market forces, and, of course, allowed the free market in many cases to now dictate who gets to go to college.
Support of the corporate model has produced a damaging antithesis on our campuses in recent years. On one hand, the corporate model of education appeared to appease what seemed to be an unstoppable neoconservative political movement created by the misguided free marketers in this country. On the other hand, it actually worked to reduce state funding for public colleges as free market fundamentalism, which disdains government and taxes, remained sacrosanct.
(Here is a compelling article about an alternative to the corporate model of education.)
If the market should dictate who goes to college—this means that only students with enough money should get to go—then Oklahoma is in deep trouble because of its low per capita income ranking and wages. Yes, the state has developed a great scholarship program, Oklahoma’s Promise, for low-income students, but it isn’t enough. Yes, the state offers lower college tuition than most states, but Oklahoma is also a low-wage state. The bottom line is this: Oklahoma probably needs to produce college graduates at higher levels if its leaders just want to sustain the state’s current economic climate. We already lag behind the rest of the nation in college graduates. Are we going to get left even further behind?
Our nation’s campuses are filled with people who were right about every major issue in America over the last eight years under the disastrous presidency of George Bush, from the myth of unregulated free markets to the overall economy, from the Iraq occupation to the housing bubble, from stagnant wages to wealth disparity. Let them make decisions about creating more access to higher education.