UCO Funding Bucked

UCO Funding Bucked

(Provided/ UCO Video Services). 

As public universities and colleges across Oklahoma scramble to adjust their budgets to another year of reduced appropriations funding, a recent study revealed that the Sooner State has led the nation in slashing funding for higher education over the last five years.

Since Fiscal Year 2012, state appropriations for higher education have been reduced from $1,042,529,350 to $857,022,108 for what amounted to an overall 17.8 percent decrease, according to a study published by Illinois State University.

The study found that the only other states whose state appropriations saw an overall decrease over the same period were Louisiana, West Virginia, Alaska, Kentucky, Arkansas and Kansas.

The trend has continued into Fiscal Year 2018, with the state’s higher education system sustaining a six percent decrease at a time when many institutions are still recovering from FY 2017’s staggering 16 percent cut.

Higher education received a $774 million allocation for FY 2018, $36 million less than the $810 million allocated last year and significantly less than the $936 million originally requested for the year by the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education.

The significant decrease in funding has meant that many universities and colleges across Oklahoma have been forced to implement stringent cost cutting measures, according to Angela Caddell, Associate Vice Chancellor for Communication with the State Regents.

“Following the higher education budget reduction for FY 2017, which exceeded $157.9 million, the additional budget cut for FY 2018 will result in a further reduction of academic programs, personnel, student services and college degree completion initiatives,” said Caddell.

To help reduce costs further, the regents have implemented measures such as sharing faculty and administrators between institutions, joint academic degree programs between institutions and the consolidation of campus sites, according to Caddell.

Regional universities, such as the University of Central Oklahoma, are amongst the hardest hit by these cuts. UCO’s own appropriation funding has been slashed by almost 40 percent since 2008 and the 2018 reductions have put further strain on the university, according to Patti Neuhold, UCO’s Vice President for Finance.

“10 years ago, the state provided almost 60 percent of our institutional budget; today, they provide less than 22 percent. The majority of the remaining budget has shifted to tuition and fees,” Neuhold said.

The latest appropriations cuts have seen UCO receiving a 6.1 percent reduction in state funding. At 22 percent funding from state appropriations, this means that UCO has the lowest rate of taxpayer contribution per student among the state’s 13 public universities.

“Although troubling on its face, this also clearly demonstrates that we are the most effective and efficient university in the state in applying taxpayer dollars to student education,” UCO President Don Betz said in an email statement.

The greatest challenge the university faces with the continued budget slashes is in its ability to offer competitive salaries for both recruiting and retaining qualified faculty, according to Neuhold.

The strain for retaining and hiring is most apparent among the university’s academic advisement staff. With an average rate of one academic counselor per 1,500 students, UCO’s ratio is significantly higher than the national average of 296 students per academic counselor reported in the National Academic Advising Association’s 2011 survey.

Last year the university enacted a three-month hiring freeze in order to accumulate funds that would help offset the funding decrease and preserve jobs. This year the university will be considering vacant positions, according to Neuhold.

“Because of the advance strategic action, we were able to finish the year with all of our campus community still intact,” said Neuhold. “We will continue to make every effort to protect the jobs of the members of our campus community by looking to leverage vacant positions for alternative funding.”

Along with vacant positions, the university will also be considering possible long term budgetary solutions by identifying recurring expenses that can be reduced and by addressing enrollment and retention strategies.

“Efficiencies, attrition, position freezes and the use of one-time revenues will offset most, if not all, of this gap,” said Betz. “However, we cannot continue to sustain our operations with ever-decreasing state funding without identifying permanent reductions in our annual, continuing operating expenses.”

Universities and colleges have also turned to tuition increases to help offset the appropriation reduction. In June, state regents approved tuition increases at 23 of the state’s public colleges and universities. Only two universities, Oklahoma Panhandle State University and the Science and Arts University of Oklahoma, did not raise tuition.

While the state’s average tuition increase for FY 2018 sits at 5.3 percent for undergraduate students and 5.2 percent for graduate students, students at UCO are facing a six percent increase at both the undergraduate and graduate level.

“We are mindful that increasing tuition is counterproductive to our mission to serve the people of this community and to ensure accessible and affordable education for our state,” said Neuhold. “We will continue to work toward alternative solutions to help ease this burden.”

With total tuition and fees accounting for 63 percent of the budget, the continued reductions have placed the university in the unusual position of operating less like a state institution, according to UCO’s Vice President for Student Affairs, Myron Pope.

“We have to depend more on tuition fees and, in many ways, we are beginning to have conversations about the reality that we are operating more like a private institution,” said Pope “If you’re familiar with private institutions, they mostly operate off of tuition dollars and are tuition driven. Consequently, for us, that’s where we are.”

From an enrollment perspective, Pope said that one of the most significant impacts is the state’s reduction in funding for concurrent enrollment programs. Funding for concurrent enrollment programs for high school students was covered at 65 percent in FY 2017, but has decreased to only 27 percent this fiscal year.

“When that happens, it limits our ability to continue to expand that program,” said Pope. “Before now, the institution has pretty much just covered the portion the state has not funded, but we’re at a point now that if it drops down any further we can’t continue to support that program at a higher level.”

While an exact correlation between the cuts and UCO’s own total enrollment rates remains unclear, continued increases to tuition coupled with sluggish increases in student financial aid threaten to burden students with the cost of attendance, according to Pope.

The university’s Spring 2017 Demographics Book, released by the Office of Institutional Research, showed that enrollment rates declined by seven percent over the last five years.

For students, reduced enrollment and student fee revenue has meant a reduction in the university’s student activities and athletic budgets as well as a reduction for the campus’ event funding.

Total funding for student organizations decreased from $773,377 in FY 2017 to $756,491 in FY 2018 and total funding for student entertainment programing decreased from $1,625,831 in FY 2017 to $1,564,127 in FY 2018.

The most significant reduction in student activity funding came to university’s athletics budget, with a decrease from $1,937,200 in FY 2017 to $1,845,932 in FY 2018.

Student activity funding is directly correlated with the university’s credit hour production, a number that is based on the number of enrolled credit hours and directly impacted by enrollment rates.

The university’s FY 2018 budget for student activities was built based on an estimated 378,000 credit hours for the 2017-2018 academic year, a 12,000 decrease in enrollment from last year’s 390,000 credit hours, according to Pope.

“The amount of federal Pell grant and federal loans have not increased at a level to keep up with the cost of funding for public higher education, not just at UCO, but within all of higher education and, consequently, students face more difficulties for the cost of attendance,” said Pope.

To ensure that the state’s available financial aid remains proportionate to these increases in tuition, the state regents approved an additional 8.1 percent increase for tuition waver and scholarship programs provided by the state’s institutions for higher education, according to Caddell.

While the state’s ongoing budget crisis leaves the prospect of increasing funding for public education uncertain for the future, both the State Regents and the state’s public institutions for higher education remain committed to improving the current situation, according to State Regents Chancellor Glen D. Johnson.

“We will continue to make the case that there is no better investment to ensure a brighter future for Oklahoma than the investment our policy leaders can make in higher education,” said Johnson.

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