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Oklahoma Joe: State must recommit to higher education as priority

Originally published in the Journal Record

I graduated from Central State University, now the University of Central Oklahoma.

I’ve written before about the many benefits that a college education provided me and how it took me to places in life that otherwise would have been unavailable. It gave me more direction and focus. It provided lifelong friendships.

Perhaps others should become more vocal about the benefits of their Oklahoma college educations, too.

The pandemic has forced many of us into uncertain times, especially college students. Because of high costs or economic strain in their own families, they may be reconsidering whether college is worth it. A recent story from Oklahoma Watch in The Journal Record carried this headline “Students slow to apply for college during pandemic.”

“Many Oklahoma seniors have yet to take an admissions test or apply for college as they begin their final semester in high school,” Kathryn McNutt’s story stated.

This has been among many stories in Oklahoma and nationwide about the dramatic impact of the pandemic on college students, both financially and psychologically. However, as we start seeing a potential end, questions will persist about what will happen beyond the pandemic. Will students begin returning to colleges once we reach the threshold where in-person classes become more common than those conducted virtually? And will the economic strain caused by the pandemic cause some to forego a college education despite the benefits of it?

As Christopher Lynch, UCO’s vice president for enrollment and student success, told McNutt: “Postponing college is ‘scary.’ Students who opt to work for one year often end up delaying enrollment for much longer, severely limiting their lifetime earnings and ability to retire.”

Lynch’s statement is backed by a 2019 report from the Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce’s report on “The Economic Role of Oklahoma’s Public Colleges and Universities.” Among its key findings, it stated Oklahoma residents who completed college earned 60% higher and those with some college education 17% higher than high school graduates.

“Research findings continue to point toward increased education as an underlying source of economic growth, both in the U.S. and internationally. These findings also reinforce the existence of a strong empirical link between education and economic growth at the state level,” the report said.

However, continued lack of support from the state Legislature for education, most notably higher education, has hampered universities and prompted them to continue increasing students’ tuition and fees. The “Report on the Future of Higher Education” from the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education states a national study found Oklahoma ranked last of the 50 states with the “largest percentage reduction in state support for higher education” from 2012-2017. Those cuts have not been restored.

Despite the evidence of education’s utmost importance, Oklahoma lawmakers place priorities on other areas such as giving the state more control over the Oklahoma City-County and Tulsa City-County health departments and pushing to protect drivers who hit peaceful demonstrators in roadways during protests. I have never seen anyone beyond the state Capitol say these are priorities. Most people will list education as among their top two or three priorities with economic growth, health care, infrastructure, workforce development and criminal justice reform.

Thus, we should proclaim how higher education and education have benefited our lives, so our lawmakers will pay more attention to priorities instead of pandering to their own beliefs and causes.

They need to understand that UCO, the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University and other state universities and colleges, as well as the students who attend them, need and deserve more support.

Joe Hight is director and member of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, an editor who led a Pulitzer Prize-winning project, the journalism ethics chair at the University of Central Oklahoma, president/owner of Best of Books, author of “Unnecessary Sorrow” and lead writer/editor of “Our Greatest Journalists.”


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