Later this month, State Representatives Corey Holland, Leslie Osborn and I, in conjunction with the Oklahoma Council on Public Affairs (OCPA), will conduct a study of the state’s higher education system.
During the past few weeks, OCPA (OCPAThink.com), OklahomaWatchdog.com and CapitolBeatOK.com have written a series of articles detailing the spending practices of Oklahoma’s higher education institutions.
The reports have found that nearly all of these organizations have increased spending even during an economic downturn. At a time when government should be downsizing, almost all of these groups are increasing tuition to finance a type of spending arms race with each other and institutions in other states.
Make no mistake, these increases in tuition and spending don’t exist just at the University of Oklahoma, but appear to be institutionalized across the higher education system. For example, a report by OCPA, released in June, shows that in the time period from 2004 to 2009, inflation-adjusted revenues per full time student increased by 40.5% at UCO, 34.3% at ECU and 29.2% at the OSU main campus.
One of the foremost concerns involves the number of professorships that appear to receive an excessive salary when those employees have very limited in-classroom responsibilities.
For instance, I recently attended a meeting with OSU officials. This year, OSU has implemented yet another tuition increase. They point to a well-meaning and aggressive effort to build the size and scope of the university’s research capabilities. The idea is that if the university can bring in enough money through research revenues (such as patent revenue), perhaps they can keep tuition down.
However, my fear is that unless a clear plan is laid out and institutionalized with a definitive time period to channel this revenue into tuition reduction, the temptation to empire build by using both the additional revenues and the student's tuition will be too strong. Worse yet, the mission of the institution risks becoming varied and unfocused. Is the mission of OSU to hire employees to build a patent library or is it to provide an education at an affordable price?
This systems creates two classes of employees. The first is charged with the important responsibility of the classroom teaching environment, while the second may rarely be required to interact with students.
As is the case with so many government entities, the heavy investment in these high paying government jobs may not result in the desired effect. It may pad the state government payroll at the taxpayer and student’s expense. Unlike businesses in the private sector, state-owned universities do not go out of business when they become inefficient. They simply pass on the cost to the taxpayers and students.
In a recent study, Oklahoma State Professor Vance Fried posited that as part of an effort to reduce the cost of college education to $6,700 per year, universities should separate their research and teaching functions. This would avoid placing the bill for the research on the student and allow the research to receive funding based on its own merit.
At the very least, the ability to set tuition should be returned to the Legislature. This would allow Oklahoma's policy makers to serve as a check and balance on higher education’s temptation to empire build and to veer away from its core mission while sending the bill to Oklahoma’s students.
It is my belief that our study will bring attention to this and other concerns.