Oklahoma should be trying to make college affordable for as many of its residents as possible, yet the state continues to drastically raise tuition rates.
Virtually every leader in the state publicly agrees we cannot expand the economy and improve the quality of life without higher education. Why then does Oklahoma make it more difficult each year for average and low-income people to attend college? This contradiction may be one reason the state has one of the lowest college graduation rates in the nation, according to the United States Census Bureau.
Both Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma have recently announced tuition increases of 9.9 percent. Other universities and colleges across the state have raised tuition as well. Altogether, the increases average 9.1 percent. These increases follow others in tuition and fees in recent years. If the current trend continues, college will soon become unaffordable for many Oklahomans.
Don't blame college administrators " they just need to pay the bills. The state's universities and colleges face the same increases in transportation and energy costs as everyone else. Adversely, recent tax cuts have kept the state budget as stagnant as an Oklahoma farm pond on a windless August day.
The state Legislature has been cutting taxes, not funding education. It's politically expedient, but institutes of higher education are the first to face budget problems when tax cuts are implemented.
Secondary public schools, of course, cannot raise tuition to offset these tax cuts, but colleges are expected to shift more of the financial burden to students. To many students, this equals going into debt and working themselves into exhaustion to simply fund their education.
Here is the qualifying mantra about the tuition increases from the tax-cut proponents: Even with the tuition increases, the overall cost of attending college in Oklahoma remains low.
But that is only part of the story. Only a handful of states have lower median household income rates than Oklahoma, according to recent U.S. Census figures. Oklahoma's low income levels dictate lower tuition or only the state's wealthiest people could go to college here. The state's tuition rates should reflect the state's status " yet, they don't.
Teachers are feeling the pinch, as well. The Legislature recently declined to raise teachers' salaries because recent income tax cuts created a standstill budget. Then the Legislature declined to allocate enough funding to higher education to prevent tuition increases.
Is this really what the state's leadership thinks about education in Oklahoma? It decrees no raises for teachers and increases tuition for college students. This is an anti-education agenda that does more harm to the state than any other conceivable social factor.
Oklahoma is traditionally ranked in the bottom five of all states in income levels, yet gasoline and food prices continue to rise. Isn't it time the state give its college students a break?
The solution to the problem is obvious. The Legislature must increase funding for higher education so more Oklahomans can improve their lives and the state by obtaining a college degree.
Kurt Hochenauer is an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma and the author of the progressive blog, Okie Funk: Notes From the Outback.