Higher Education , Economy

Time for Oklahoma workforce scholarships

Jonathan Small | October 16, 2023

Oklahoma youth (and their parents) are increasingly asking, “Is a college degree worth the cost?” We’ve all heard horror stories of students who racked up significant college debt only to find they can’t pay off their debt and also live comfortably on the salaries their college degree produces.

In fact, a 2022 report by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that, within six years of enrolling, more than half of students at 1,233 postsecondary institutions nationwide were earning less than counterparts who were simply high school graduates.

However, this does not mean all college degrees are worthless. Field of study, and demand for specific employee skills, means some degrees provide tremendous value while others are worth far less when calculating return on investment (ROI).

Oklahoma policymakers can help students pursue more financially lucrative degrees and address labor shortages by creating an “Oklahoma Workforce Needs” fund within the Oklahoma Department of Commerce that would help students pay for degree programs in high-need areas.

For example, the program could provide students with $10,000 a year towards tuition and fees if they enroll in a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) program. Those degrees provide significant ROI for students and Oklahoma has a shortage of STEM-degree holders.

Why administer the program through the Department of Commerce rather than through the Regents for Higher Education? Because that will make it much more likely the money is spent producing STEM graduates.

The Oklahoma Constitution prevents lawmakers from imposing direct oversight of the regents (and therefore state colleges as well). Historically, funding increases for state colleges do little to increase the supply of workers in high-need areas, such as STEM. Why? Because the degrees that generate high student debt and low ROI are often the most profitable for state colleges. In contrast, producing STEM graduates requires more spending on faculty and supplies than other degrees with limited market value.

That means colleges have perverse incentives to prop up degrees with low student ROI and downplay those with greater ROI. But those perverse incentives don’t exist for the Department of Commerce.

The “Oklahoma Workforce Needs” fund could pay for students to attend not just public universities, but also for-profit and private colleges, expanding opportunity for Oklahoma youth and boosting the number of potential graduates in high-need fields.

The associated competition for students will also force traditional public universities to become more responsive to student needs.

It’s important to give Oklahoma children a quality K-12 education. But once they’ve graduated high school, we need to maximize their opportunity to take the next step to a good-paying job.

With an “Oklahoma Workforce Needs” fund, policymakers can better prepare young adults for the best-paying jobs of the future and put our state economy on a path of greater growth.

Jonathan Small President

Jonathan Small


Jonathan Small, C.P.A., serves as President and joined the staff in December of 2010. Previously, Jonathan served as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma Office of State Finance, as a fiscal policy analyst and research analyst for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and as director of government affairs for the Oklahoma Insurance Department. Small’s work includes co-authoring “Economics 101” with Dr. Arthur Laffer and Dr. Wayne Winegarden, and his policy expertise has been referenced by The Oklahoman, the Tulsa World, National Review, the L.A. Times, The Hill, the Wall Street Journal and the Huffington Post. His weekly column “Free Market Friday” is published by the Journal Record and syndicated in 27 markets. A recipient of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s prestigious Private Sector Member of the Year award, Small is nationally recognized for his work to promote free markets, limited government and innovative public policy reforms. Jonathan holds a B.A. in Accounting from the University of Central Oklahoma and is a Certified Public Accountant.

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