ANALYSIS — As the future rushes in: Tuition hikes and horses and buggies vs. MOOCs and Innovation

OKLAHOMA CITY – Tuition at Oklahoma’s 25 public colleges and universities will go up an average of 8.4 percent this year, the Associated Press reports. Hikes for undergraduates will range from Langston’s 3.7 percent boost to about 13 percent at Rose State.

The state Higher Education Regents and Chancellor Glen Johnson contend higher tuition was needed after the Legislature trimmed direct support in response to this year’s comparatively tight revenues.

Per student, the price increase averages about $417 a year.

Even in the “salad days” for budgeteers (before 2014) Higher Education costs for families increased methodically. The latest tuition hike fits a sustained pattern for Oklahoma’s tax-financed colleges and universities.

And, it fits the national pattern of accelerating tuition and fees.

Oklahoma Taxpayers generously back Higher Education

Despite poor-mouthing from defenders of the status quo, Byron Schlomach of the 1889 Institute honors the dedication to education funding demonstrated by taxpayers:

Despite Oklahomans’ relatively low incomes, the state spends handsomely on higher education. On average, states devote 8.1 percent of their state and local spending on higher education. Oklahoma devotes 10.4 percent of its spending to higher education. While states spend an average of about 1.6 percent of their GSP on higher education, Oklahoma spends 1.9 percent of its GSP on higher education.”

Tuition hikes are framed as virtually a matter of natural law, as inevitable as the rising sun, the August heat, and dry conditions in western Oklahoma.

Are they? No – higher costs in higher education are not as inevitable as the Oklahoma wind.

Langston and OCU seek cost efficiencies

Langston was an exception to near-double-digit-increase rule for tuition. Leaders there have started, for the Oklahoma City branch, a partnership and “next-door” relationship with Millwood Schools, creating efficiencies and greater collaboration. Millwood’s high school students will have greater opportunities (as in private and suburban secondary schools) for “more course options for concurrent enrollment — college classes taken while they still are in high school.”

Dr. Steven Agee, dean of Oklahoma City University’s Meinders School of Business, announced a 37 percent reduction in tuition for master’s degree programs in energy. Agee, who was in the oil and gas business for more than two decades before entering the groves of academia, commented, “Given the energy industry’s response to the downturn, with layoffs, cutbacks and even some reorganization filings, we thought it would be appropriate to restructure the price of our educational products to assist current and prospective students.

Now is the time for industry employees to focus on a differentiator; that is, something that will separate one employee from another, particularly given that over the next 10 years many of the existing executives in the C-suite will be retiring.”

Shocking, but there it is: Despite no taxpayer subsidy, an institution responsive to market realities.

Listening to the Three Amigos – Ideas for combining quality with lower cost

Schlomach is state policy director at the 1889 Institute. At a recent press conference, he was joined by Perspective editor Brandon Dutcher and former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating.

Their conversation felt innovative – yet was drawn from existing models that promote efficiency, productivity and affordability:

As the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA) points out, Oklahoma’s non-instructional college and university workforce is “is a starling 61 percent higher than the national average. It is the fourth highest in the country.” Nipping that to the national average would save more than $328 million a year in wages and salaries to finance better instruction,

Here’s another idea: “Require professors to teach more.” That’s an idea University of Oklahoma President David Boren used to support.

To avoid confusion about the point here, as Dutcher observed, there is a need for pure research, especially in hard sciences. Still, it makes sense to have full professors actually teach a full load (say, 12 hours).

The three Amigos (Schlomach, Keating and Dutcher) cheerfully laid out specifics. Dutcher hopes this effort will “jump-start the conversation” after a disappointing year at the state Capitol.

Schlomach outlined the concepts.

First, the Regents should create an “Oklahoma Freshman Academy” aiming “to provide Oklahoma residents low-cost general education courses that can be transferred and count towards a degree offered by any Oklahoma public college or university.”

This is not pie-in-the-sky stuff. It builds on the web-based EdX (Harvard/MIT) program, Arizona State University’s Global Freshman Academy, and StraightLiner, systems deemed “massive online open courses” (MOOCs).

Second, the state should build a more direct partnership with Western Governors University (WGU), which Keating helped establish 19 years ago – today with an enrollment greater than the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University combined.

Such a partnership would not make us outliers, but participants in creativity. As detailed in a recent OCPA memorandum, for “as little as $4,000 per year, WGU’s tuition is substantially lower than in-state tuition at Oklahoma’s public regional colleges. Indeed, WGU is so much cheaper that the state could pay a student’s full tuition and still save thousands of dollars annually.” In that, we could follow Indiana, Texas, Washington, Tennessee, and Missouri.

Third, the state should mimic the $10,000 bachelor’s degree program Governor Rick Perry started for the Lone Star State’s public universities in 2011. An OCPA sketch explained, “These new degree programs are mostly built on cooperative agreements with community colleges and scholarships.

The blended idea: Oklahoma could quickly create a $10,000 degree by combining a Freshman Academy with WGU. Legislators could nudge Higher Education to participate by providing funding for upfront costs.

Making a virtue of necessity – Higher Ed will get better, because it must

Schlomach says, the bottom line is that “in the future our universities are going to be facing more competition.” We must “find ways to make existing resources adequate for the task at hand.”

Keating, effusive as ever, is glad to be back home from the nation’s capital after several years running the American Bankers Association. Recalling his state service from 1995-2003, he noted that even with a Democratic-controlled Legislature – as voters approved right to work in 2001, and after his 302 vetoes (all sustained) leveraged discussion – the state edged from 45th to 38th in per capita personal income.

As for here and now, concerning Higher Ed, Keating stressed the WGU model as a workable way toward efficiency. Across America, he said in response to questions, with “$1.2 trillion in higher education debt, young people delaying marriage [and] home purchases, couples making fewer investments than in the past, people can’t afford higher education any more. There is something wrong with that picture. There are inefficiencies. You don’t have to bankrupt yourself for a college degree. These ideas would help.”

Keating’s points were reinforced recently in (among other publications) an essay for “” which examined how flat incomes contribute to decisions to delay or avoid marriage.

The programs Keating, Schlomach and Dutcher focused on are in their infancy, but they are not unborn.

Schlomach says “we are learning how to use technology. Students are taking courses. Flexibility and innovation are the waves of the future.” It’s going to get better, because it must. As he says, many families are past the “price point” they can bear.

Ahead of the curve: OSU Professor Vance Fried predicts ‘more effective’ Higher Education

In a 2013 research paper for the Heritage Foundation, Oklahoma State University Professor Vance Fried observed, College in America will look very different in just a few years, thanks to remarkable innovations taking place in technology and business models in higher education. The advance of [online education] will trigger structural changes in what we mean by a ‘college education.’ Students in the future will be more likely to pursue their studies in an ‘unbundled’ system in which different institutions provide different parts of a student’s higher education experience. Students will be more likely to learn through a blend of online coursework and a residential experience and will likely assemble a guided and rounded transcript of courses and experiences that are independently credentialed, allowing future employers to have a better measure of their skills.”

Some students will prefer the traditional on-campus experience, as Fried has reflected in several of his scholarly essays. In fact, for some (perhaps even most) students, exposure to traditional lecture formats in certain courses will be beneficial.

Bottom line in terms of financing education: The emerging mix of online and on-campus will cost less for all of us. As for players in the existing system, Schlomach observed, “It’s up to Higher Ed to decide their future. The ‘horse and buggy’ or innovation? Higher education needs an integrated approach. … I see an increasingly competitive situation.”

Professor Fried’s bottom line – the mantra he has repeated for years – is this: “The college of tomorrow will be … a far more effective vehicle for upward mobility for all Americans.”

I once thought such optimism was misplaced. As the future rushes in, however, I am more hopeful.

NOTE: McGuigan, a certified teacher, has taught at Justice Alma Wilson Seeworth Academy, a public charter school in Oklahoma City, and worked as a substitute teacher throughout the city area. While attending Oklahoma State University in the 1970s, he was course coordinator for “The Schools and American Society” in the College of Education. The author of three books and co-editor of seven, he is a member of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame. Portions of this essay will also appear in Perspective Magazine, a publication of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.