Higher Education

Patrick B. McGuigan | September 1, 2016

Higher Ed’s Future Rushes In

Patrick B. McGuigan

Higher Ed's Future Rushes In

Tuition hikes and horses and buggies vs. innovation and MOOCs

By Patrick B. McGuigan

Tuition at Oklahoma’s 25 public colleges and universities will go up an average of 8.4 percent this year, the Associated Press reports. Hikes for undergraduates will range from Langston’s 3.7 percent boost to about 13 percent at Rose State.

The state higher education regents and Chancellor Glen Johnson contend higher tuition was needed after the Legislature trimmed direct support in response to this year’s comparatively tight revenues. Per student, the price increase averages about $417 a year. It fits a national pattern of accelerating tuition and fees. To be clear, even in the “salad days” for budget writers (before 2014), higher education costs for families increased methodically.

Despite poor-mouthing from defenders of the status quo, economist Byron Schlomach honors the dedication to education funding demonstrated by taxpayers: “Despite Oklahomans’ relatively low incomes, the state spends handsomely on higher education,” writes Dr. Schlomach, a scholar-in-residence at the Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise at Oklahoma State University. “On average, states devote 8.1 percent of their state and local spending on higher education. Oklahoma devotes 10.4 percent of its spending to higher education. While states spend an average of about 1.6 percent of their GSP on higher education, Oklahoma spends 1.9 percent of its GSP on higher education.”

Tuition hikes are framed as a matter of natural law, as inevitable as the rising sun, the August heat, and dry conditions in western Oklahoma.

Are they? No. Higher costs in higher education are not as inevitable as the Oklahoma wind. Dr. Steven Agee, dean of Oklahoma City University’s Meinders School of Business, recently announced a 37 percent reduction in tuition for master’s degree programs in energy. Shocking, but there it is: Despite no taxpayer subsidy, an institution responsive to market realities.

At a recent press conference, Schlomach was joined by Perspective editor Brandon Dutcher and former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating. Their conversation felt innovative—yet was drawn from existing models that promote efficiency, productivity, and affordability:

As OCPA points out, Oklahoma’s non-instructional college and university workforce “is a startling 61 percent higher than the national average. It is the fourth highest in the country.” Nipping that to the national average would save more than $328 million a year in wages and salaries to finance better instruction.

Here’s another idea: “Require professors to teach more.” That’s an idea David Boren used to support.
As Dutcher observed, there is a need for pure research, especially in hard sciences, but it makes sense to have full professors actually teach a full load (say, 12 hours).

Schlomach, Keating, and Dutcher cheerfully laid out specifics. Dutcher hopes this effort will “jump-start the conversation” after a disappointing year at the state Capitol.

Schlomach outlined the concepts. First, the Regents should create an “Oklahoma Freshman Academy” aiming “to provide Oklahoma residents low-cost general education courses that can be transferred and count towards a degree offered by any Oklahoma public college or university.”

This is not pie-in-the-sky stuff. It builds on the Web-based EdX (Harvard/MIT) program, Arizona State University’s Global Freshman Academy, and StraighterLine—systems deemed “massive online open courses” (MOOCs).

Second, the state should build a more direct partnership with Western Governors University (WGU), which Keating helped establish 19 years ago and today has an enrollment greater than the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University combined. In that, we could follow Indiana, Texas, Washington, Tennessee, and Missouri.

Such a partnership would not make us outliers, but participants in creativity. As detailed in a recent OCPA memorandum, with costs “as little as $4,000 per year, WGU’s tuition is substantially lower than in-state tuition at Oklahoma’s public regional colleges. Indeed, WGU is so much cheaper that the state could pay a student’s full tuition and still save thousands of dollars annually.”

Third, the state should mimic the $10,000 bachelor’s degree program Governor Rick Perry started for the Lone Star State’s public universities in 2011. An OCPA sketch explained, “These new degree programs are mostly built on cooperative agreements with community colleges and scholarships.”

The blended idea: Oklahoma could quickly create a $10,000 degree by combining a Freshman Academy with WGU. Legislators could nudge higher education to participate by providing funding for upfront costs.

Schlomach says the bottom line is that “in the future our universities are going to be facing more competition.” We must “find ways to make existing resources adequate for the task at hand.”

Keating, effusive as ever, is glad to be back home from the nation’s capital after several years running the American Bankers Association. Concerning higher education, Keating stressed the WGU model as a workable way toward efficiency. Across America, he said in response to questions, with “$1.2 trillion in higher education debt, young people delaying marriage [and] home purchases, couples making fewer investments than in the past—people can’t afford higher education any more. There is something wrong with that picture. There are inefficiencies. You don’t have to bankrupt yourself for a college degree. These ideas would help.”

These programs are in their infancy, but they are not unborn. Schlomach says “we are learning how to use technology. Students are taking courses. Flexibility and innovation are the waves of the future.” It’s going to get better, because it must. As he says, many families are past the “price point” they can bear.

In a 2013 research paper published by the Heritage Foundation, Oklahoma State University Professor Vance Fried observed, “College in America will look very different in just a few years, thanks to remarkable innovations taking place in technology and business models in higher education. The advance of [online education] will trigger structural changes in what we mean by a ‘college education.’ Students in the future will be more likely to pursue their studies in an ‘unbundled’ system in which different institutions provide different parts of a student’s higher education experience. Students will be more likely to learn through a blend of online coursework and a residential experience and will likely assemble a guided and rounded transcript of courses and experiences that are independently credentialed, allowing future employers to have a better measure of their skills.”

Some students will prefer the traditional on-campus experience, Fried says. The mix of online and on-campus will cost less for all of us. As for players in the existing system, Schlomach observed, “It’s up to Higher Ed to decide their future. The horse and buggy or innovation?”

“Higher education needs an integrated approach,” Schlomach said. “I see an increasingly competitive situation.”
Fried’s bottom line—the mantra he has repeated for years—is this: “The college of tomorrow will be … a far more effective vehicle for upward mobility for all Americans.”

I once thought such optimism was misplaced. As the future rushes in, however, I am more hopeful.

Patrick McGuigan (M.A. in history, Oklahoma State University) is the editor of and appears weekly as a commentator on NEWS 9, the CBS affiliate in Oklahoma City. He is the editor of seven books on legal policy and the author or co-author of three books, including Ninth Justice: The Fight for Bork. A certified public school teacher, McGuigan is the author of thousands of articles and commentaries on public, private, and home schools.

Patrick B. McGuigan

Independent Journalist

A member of the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, Patrick B. McGuigan is founder of CapitolBeatOK, an online news service, and editor of The City Sentinel, an independent newspaper. He is the author of three books and editor of seven, and has written extensively on education and other public policy issues.

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