Now is exactly the time for state government to invest more in higher education, but don't count on a majority of Oklahoma leaders to see it this way.
Faced with projections of declining state revenues, Oklahoma's political leaders shouldn't hesitate to tap the Rainy Day Fund to increase funding for higher education. This is unlikely to happen because of opposition from Republicans and Democrats.
College tuition costs have skyrocketed in recent years. Last year, tuition rose by more than 9 percent. In response, the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education agreed not to raise tuition this coming fiscal year 2010 if the state government would increase higher education funding by $80.4 million, a relatively small amount compared to the $7 billion budget.
But with a projected state revenue drop of nearly $309 million, some state leaders are arguing the increase in funding won't be possible. University of Oklahoma President David Boren said he wants the state to tap into its Rainy Day Fund, which has approximately $600 million, to pay for the increase. But leading Republican and Democratic leaders in the state Senate and Gov. Brad Henry oppose the idea, according to news reports.
So Oklahoma, a state that needs more college graduates in its workforce, will probably make it harder for people to attend college. If the economy declines further here, cash-strapped students will face even higher tuition and fees next year. This makes no sense.
Tuition has gone up too much and too fast in recent years. Those students attending college here over the last several years have seen a huge collective increase in their costs. They need a break. It's true that Oklahoma colleges offer lower tuition than the national and regional averages, but the state also consistently ranks low in average wages.
The Rainy Day Fund has enough money to fund the increase and also provide a continued security blanket for the state if the economy worsens the following year. The $80.4 million wouldn't even begin to deplete the fund, which was designed for appropriations like this one. If the Legislature hadn't been giving big tax cuts to wealthy people recently, then this wouldn't be necessary anyway.
Oklahoma and the nation need a huge reinvestment in public education systems and overall infrastructure. The national economy is in a shambles, but there is growing political will to rebuild the country after the disastrous Bush years. Oklahoma, which has never adequately funded education, will never go wrong when it invests in students and its future.
In a recent article, Paul Krugman, The New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist, wrote the country needs to reconfigure how it funds services, such as education, which he accurately calls a "national resource." Meanwhile, he argues, states' spending cuts caused by the national recession could inflict further damage.
Krugman's broad view of the economy is correct. Oklahoma should expand funding for higher education this year to help students and the state economy. To not do so is to recklessly ignore the state's chronically underfunded education systems, a glaring systemic problem that inhibits economic development and increases government spending on social and health programs.
In recent years, Oklahoma leaders have punished a new generation of state students by making college less affordable. It's not too late to change this legacy.
Hochenauer is an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma and the author of the progressive blog Okie Funk: Notes From The Outback, www.okiefunk.com.