Of all the state budget cuts that have taken place over the past three years in Oklahoma, for every dollar cut, 53 cents of it has come from higher education, Oklahoma Tomorrow CEO DeveryYoungblood said. “That’s not sustainable for your future,” he said in Enid Monday. “We’ve made this about budgets and bureaucracies, and people and politics. The fact of the matter is, it’s about students, and they’re the ones that are going to kick all of us off the stage and run the state. What’s that going to look like, the way we’re disinvesting from this?”
Oklahoma Tomorrow is a nonprofit organization working to have appropriate funding for higher education during a time of state budget issues, and Youngblood shared about the organization during the Enid Rotary Club meeting.
“We basically saw the last few years a real train wreck developing in terms of our ability to have an economy that will support the things that we want to have in Oklahoma, and that we’re not producing nearly enough college graduates to fund the economy we have today, much less the one we need for tomorrow,” Youngblood said.
He said the shortage of qualified college graduates was especially great in areas of health care and in science, technology, engineering and math — areas where the cost of education also is greater.
“We’re already behind. We’re looking at potentially losing work at Tinker Air Force Base because we can’t produce enough STEM graduates,” he said. “We have great growth that we’ve had with things like Boeing that we can’t meet all of their demands, even, at this point. At the same time, there are those in the Legislature who have absolutely targeted higher education, and decided that it is something that’s bad and has to be cut.
“So they cut 16 percent last year, when everybody else took 10 percent cuts. They’ve got $4 million less now than they did in 2001.”
Sofia Maldonado, currently attending Northern Oklahoma College, could not have gone to school without a scholarship, he noted. However, scholarship programs today are more restrictive.
“It’s already being cut behind her. The people who are coming behind her are not going to get what she got,” Youngblood said.
Maldonado will complete her associate degree in May and plans to pursue a nursing degree at Northwestern Oklahoma State University in Woodward.
The Legislature recently asked all state agencies to show what a 14.5 percent cut would look like for them, Youngblood said.
“But for higher ed, they wanted to know what a 20 percent cut would look like. So the targeting is still there. It makes no sense to our future. What we’re trying to say is, ‘This isn’t just about a bureaucracy, this is about our future,’” he said.
He thinks the fact Oklahoma has 25 public colleges and universities — and that 20 are located outside of metropolitan Oklahoma City and Tulsa — is a part of the solution and is significant.
“What it means is that we are by no means an overeducated state. We need to have more people being educated, and that gives far more access than we had before. It’s not a matter of cutting those back. We can’t cut our way to success. We need more students coming into all of those schools, and as we do, we’ll grow our economy more and all these problems we’re facing will be less — because we make the pie bigger,” he said.
Driving to a campus elsewhere would have made graduation impossible for Larin Davis, now a special education teacher at Enid High School.
Davis married in her sophomore year of college, her mother was sick and she and her husband both worked part-time jobs. “We barely made it work with it here in town,” she said, adding the couple received minimal assistance and had to get student loans. “If we would have had to commute somewhere, we would have just left town. We wouldn’t have been here, and we wouldn’t still be here.”
After taking classes at NOC, Davis completed her bachelor’s degree at NWOSU. Local colleges also made it possible for Codi Harding to take classes. After graduating from high school in 2002, she started college but later got married and had a baby. She and her husband dropped out of school and worked, but she would return to college at times. Harding finished a degree in early childhood development in 2014, and then decided to go into mental health at NWOSU. She’s currently waiting on acceptance into a master’s program at the University of Oklahoma. Youngblood noted Harding’s three children likely will be influenced by her determination to get advanced education.