The Norman Transcript

April 23, 2013

Could public higher education disappear?

By David L. Boren
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Especially in Norman, the home of a great university, we should pay attention to a trend that gravely threatens America's future. Step by step, public higher education is disappearing across our nation.

Our dominance in higher education is our greatest asset as we compete with other nations.

While the U.S. has less than 6 percent of the world's population, most surveys indicate that we have 85 percent to 90 percent of the world's greatest colleges and universities.

Students from all over the world flock to America to obtain their college degrees.

It is not a coincidence that our greatest period of economic growth came in the 20 years following the end of World War II. Real incomes of ordinary Americans almost doubled.

This growth came as the percentage of our population going to college increased 500 percent because the G.I. Bill of Rights provided a free college education for those who served in the war effort.

It wasn't until President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862 that public higher education really began to develop in the U.S.

In 1800 with a population of 5 million, there were only about 1,000 Americans enrolled in colleges. All of them were at small, expensive, private institutions.

As affordable public higher education developed, college enrollment kept growing and reached over 20 million by 2010.

Now with almost no public debate, we are reversing course. Our budget decisions are causing the dismantling of our system of public higher education. In state after state we are reducing financial support for public colleges and universities.

We are transforming great public universities into more expensive private universities which receive small amounts of public support.

In Oklahoma, the share of the costs of university budgets being paid by students and their families has doubled while the state's share has fallen rapidly.

When I first came back to OU to be president, the state provided 32 percent of the university budget. Now the state provides 15 percent and the support is falling. The OU Medical School receives less than 7 percent of its budget from the state.

State appropriations for higher education in Oklahoma are now $100 million lower than in 2008. In addition, $200 million in uncontrollable cost increases, like health insurance, have also been absorbed by Oklahoma colleges in four years without help from the state.

This comes at a time when a new report by Battelle for the State Chamber of Commerce demonstrates that the economy benefits $5 for every $1 invested in higher education.

The result of declining state support for public higher education and cost shifting to students is threatening America's role in the world.

In only a decade we have dropped from 1st place in the world to 12th place in the percentage of our young people going on to college.

The impact on American jobs and our ability to compete is clear for all to see. In addition, democracies like ours only function well when we have informed and well-educated citizens.

Continued disinvestment in public higher education gravely threatens our future.

Oklahoma can demonstrate important national leadership by increasing appropriations for our public colleges and universities this year. Public higher education must not be allowed to disappear.

There is no time to waste. It is time for all Oklahomans to speak out!

David L. Boren is former governor, U.S. Senator and currently President of The University of Oklahoma.

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