Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Small: Time to act on college tuition

Time to act on college tuition
By Jonathan Small

The story of Oklahoma college tuition usually falls into one of three patterns.

Lawmakers cut college appropriations and colleges raise tuition, blaming the lack of appropriations.

Or lawmakers provide steady appropriations, and colleges raise tuition, blaming the lack of increased appropriations.

Or lawmakers increase appropriations, and colleges still raise tuition, blaming lawmakers for not doing more.

This year, we’re seeing the third scenario play out at the University of Oklahoma.

This year legislators increased state appropriations to colleges by 14.9%, the largest increase in recent history, giving state colleges more than $1 billion.

In response, OU regents voted to hike tuition by another 3% compounding the 2.75% hike they approved in 2021 and the 3% increase in tuition for out-of-state students in 2022.

In many years that might be the end of the story. But this year, some legislative leaders are pushing back. State Sens. Adam Pugh, Kristen Thompson, and Ally Seifried all condemned OU’s action. The three are the chair and vice-chairs of two important committees: the Senate Education Committee and the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education.

“The higher education system just received the largest increase in appropriations in recent history,” Pugh said. “For any university to turn around and immediately raise tuition on students is absurd.”

The lawmakers noted that increasing the cost of college makes it harder to address workforce shortages in Oklahoma, which business leaders have identified as a major challenge. The fewer people who can afford college, the larger the labor shortfall.

OU officials responded that the university is providing more need-based tuition waivers, which have increased by 48% in the past five years. But that effectively admits that Pugh, Thompson and Seifried are correct. You don’t need a rapidly growing number of tuition waivers unless your tuition is already out-of-range for many Oklahoma families.

Also, OU is raising tuition at the same time the school is spending money fighting in court to keep Oklahomans from viewing two reports prepared for the college by the Jones Day law firm regarding alleged decades of false claims about the school’s fundraising and allegations of sexual harassment by former OU President David Boren. (The university spent $1 million in taxpayer funds on those reports.)

And OU somehow had sufficient funds from all sources to recently pay a drag performer $18,000 for a single day of “work.”

But, apparently, we are supposed to believe OU simply can’t cover its expenses without another tuition hike.

Pugh said lawmakers should freeze tuition and fees for public colleges and universities in Oklahoma. Oklahoma families should not only praise Pugh for making that stand, but also urge their local legislators to join him.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.


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