OKLAHOMA CITY — With inflation squeezing their wallets, 18 state colleges and universities said Wednesday that they need to raise tuition and fees an average of 2% this coming academic year despite additional legislative appropriation.

Presidents of nine institutions, meanwhile, said they plan to keep tuition and fees flat for in-state resident students, though one — the University of Oklahoma — is seeking to increase its rate by 3% for out-of-state residents.

If approved by the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education on Thursday, the average 2% hike for Oklahoma residents equates to an increase of $126.42 for 30 credit hours, but college officials stressed that the state’s tuition and fee rates remain below that of their peer institutions. The state oversight board has traditionally approved requested tuition hikes.

But Jeffrey Hickman, board chair, said Wednesday the board was being more thorough than in years past to ensure that they’re approving only what is necessary.

“We have to consider the impact of what’s going on in the economy and record inflation rates on students and families as we make these decisions,” Hickman said. “Obviously inflation impacts the institutions as well. Their costs have gone up, too, but our job is to ensure we’re doing everything we can to keep tuition as low as possible and keep a college degree as accessible as possible to all Oklahomans.”

Hickman said the institutions that requested fee or tuition hikes each have “very diverse situations” in terms of budget needs, access to property tax funding, the programs they offer and whether student enrollment is growing or declining.

But he said the regents also need to take into consideration that the Legislature boosted higher education’s overall budget to $873.4 million, which amounted to about a 7.5% increase.

“The state is investing more in that area to be able to keep the cost down so that we can have more students graduating with college degrees, which helps workforce and economic development for the state,” Hickman said. “(It’s) an important statistic that we have an increasing number of college graduates. … Our job is to make sure that we’re keeping tuition low, but also keeping the academic quality in place.”

Some college and university presidents said their budgets continued to face pressure from decreased enrollment, record inflation, and said they’ve had to lay off faculty and staff.

“The elephant in the room is inflation,” said Diana Lovell, president of Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford. She said if the Legislature had kept funding at the same level between 2016 and today, every dollar would be worth only 88 cents, but lawmakers have cut higher education’s budget multiple times in past years.

“We have an increase this year that we are grateful for, but it does not come anywhere close to keeping us at a stable allocation to where we were in 2016,” Lovell said.

She said her university’s budget was buoyed by federal coronavirus aid last year, and while they saved some federal money, it’s essential that they raise tuition 2.9%.

To save money, the university has already begun reducing its footprint in Sayre and is transferring the buildings there to the local school district. They’ll continue to offer classes there this upcoming school year, but at very reduced staffing levels.

Some officials said they relied on federal coronavirus aid to keep tuition flat this past year, but they’ve exhausted those funds.

“We did not arrive lightly at this request,” said John Feaver, president of the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma in Chickasha. He said it was the first increase sought in three years.

He asked regents to approve a 5.2% tuition increase, which will increase annual costs by around $420 for a 30-hour course load. Though there will be no new salary increases, Feaver said it was important to continue to protect the quality of teachers and student support services.

His school’s request was the second highest. Rose State College in Midwest City requested a combined 7.7% increase in tuition and fees, which regents said was the largest.

Rose State leaders said the number of credit hours continues to decline while their costs continue to climb.

Chancellor Allison Garrett said the schools that are requesting increases are asking for “really modest increases” that are nowhere close to the level of inflation, but she expects a “robust discussion” from regents, who are mindful of the fact that not only is inflation hitting families and institutions, but also that the Legislature boosted funding in an effort to keep tuition rates lower.

“Just as families in Oklahoma are experiencing increases in cost of food and housing and everything else our institutions are experiencing cost increases too,” Garrett said. “What you really see is just a continuation of the belt-tightening that our institutions have been going through for the last number of years.”

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhinews.com.

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