Oklahoma’s Online college revolution to leave empire builders with big bills
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Published: 02-Oct-2012

You might be wild about the coming revolution in higher education, might see it as a democratizing force that will transform the globe as it lift millions out of poverty for the price of a few dollars per student and a laptop computer.

But at least one state lawmaker says online education is revealing fatal problems in Oklahoma’s troubled higher-ed system — and will likely destroy it.

“The Harvards, the MITs, the Cals — this is one of those break-through years when they’re coming online with their new platforms,” said state Rep. Jason Murphey, a Guthrie Republican. “This is the new model. Eventually this is going to pop the bubble that is higher ed. It’s our job as policymakers to understand that. Location will no longer matter.”

Murphey and others point to a number of problems in the state’s higher education system. Uncorrected, they say, the system will fall to more efficient learning providers.

Despite greater funding, student tuition and fees are going up. That’s because the state’s universities and community colleges have embarked on what Murphey calls empire-building — an unprecedented construction and hiring boom that has left the system bloated and unable to face its more nimble, big-name online competitors.

“It’s not just about teaching students anymore. It’s about building an empire, competing with big names in the private and public sectors,” the legislator said. “It’s just a huge monster now. It has lost focus on its core purpose which is to deliver a high quality education.”

Murphey predicts students will begin to look elsewhere.

“It’s the big tuition hikes that are forcing the issue, and (students) can’t afford it in many cases now,” Murphey said. “Just as the market responds when a business over-prices, the market is responding now and people, politically, are beginning to see that something is just not right here.”

Average, in-state, annual tuition at Oklahoma’s two research schools, the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University, will be $19,215 (up 5.9 percent); at regional universities, $11,769 (up 5.6 percent); and $7,393 at community colleges (up 4.5 percent).

At the University of Oklahoma, some debt was issued based on guaranteed student dormitory occupancy required of freshmen. Monthly dorm fees start at almost $900 a month for single or double occupancy. A one-bedroom apartment can still be found in Norman for about $450 or less, according to Craigslist classified advertisements.

State regents report a record 193,500 students enrolled at Sooner universities and colleges in 2011, but based on resident tuition and non-resident tuition data, more than half of Oklahoma college tuition is paid by non-resident or out-of-state students.

History shows many students don’t finish. The graduation rate at research universities is 69 percent; at regional universities 37.1 percent and at community colleges, 17.7 percent. In 2009-2010, higher education conferred 30,674 degrees.

Many never even start. The number of primary and secondary education students now stands at about 615,000 students. There has been disagreement about the state’s dropout rate, but it is believed to be at least 5 percent.

Regents spokesman Ben Hardcastle said regents are trying to keep tuition increases minimal, but records show an increase is planned for 2013-14.

You’d think that those tuition hikes would cover the costs of educating students. You’d be wrong: spending — on buildings, faculty and staff pay and benefits, and new hires — has simply outpaced tuition revenue.

“There’s so much spending going on over there,” Murphey said. “The debt has gone up so much that higher ed now has more debt on the books than the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority. Whereas 10 or 12 years ago, it was about $60 million to $80 million, it’s now $1 billion.”

The Oklahoma Public Employees Association policy chief Trish Frazier said that higher education jobs have increased by 6,223 in the past decade, while civil service jobs have fallen by 3,904 since 2009. The transparency website ok.gov shows education and higher education salaries dwarf those of any other state endeavor.

Last year education and higher education payroll topped $1.14 billion. The second closest was social services, with annual payroll of $236 million.

The Oklahoma Legislature relinquished control of higher education tuition controls in 2003. Since then, the Oklahoma State Regents have raised tuition at alarming rates, saying state appropriations have been inadequate, the Republican legislator said.

“It’s frightening. It’s unbelievable. It’s out of control, and the Legislature made a big, big mistake by giving up the ability to set tuition,” Murphey said. “Had they not done that, it would be much more affordable to go to college here.”

But the truth is state appropriations have continued upward yearly in the last decade, just not to college educators’ satisfaction. In the most recent year, higher ed got its smallest jump in years — 3.7 percent — putting its total state aid of $980 million. Higher ed plus the $2.34 billion that went to common education and CareerTech grabbed more than 58 percent of Oklahoma’s 2012 state appropriation budget.

How has higher education been so successful at squeezing lawmakers for continued increases, despite tuition hikes?

“I think they invest heavily in an aggressive, lobbying team,” Murphey said. “It’s one of the hardest entities to take on. If the lobbying team can’t get it done, they call in the next wave, which is also very effective. They will fill the House lobby with university presidents when they have to, or pull the members off the aisle, when they have to.”

Plan “B” is to bring in the big guns.

“When a member sees his higher ed president has come up from the district to lobby him or her, it makes a big difference. You can only imagine how effective that is because they know how important that university is to their district.”

You may contact Stacy Martin at stacy@oklahomawatchdog.org, and follow us on Twitter: @capitolbeatok. 

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