With classes only a day away, Southeastern students, faculty and staff face another tight-budget year. However, programs to cope with the squeeze are in place, says President Larry Minks of Southeastern Oklahoma State University.
Students will help significantly through a 5.3 percent increase in tuition and fees for this academic year. The increase is about the same as the tuition-fee rise for the state’s other higher-education institutions and will bring undergraduate tuition and fees to an estimated $2,023 per semester. Students can pay about $200 more per semester to lock in their rate for four years.
In separate interviews earlier this year, the chairmen of the Oklahoma House and Senate budget committees predicted more cuts in state funding in many areas and both said that a particular target will be higher education.
Minks said continued financial pressure has been anticipated and so SOSU has “budgeted very conservatively.”
State support for Oklahoma’s colleges and universities has been declining steadily for the past five years. He noted The state appropriation for Southeastern’s 2012-13 year is down about $1.5 million from the total four years ago; this year state money will provide only 41.9 percent of the university’s funding, down from 52.5 percent in the 2006-07 academic year. Student fees and tuition now account for about 54 percent of total funding, with grants, contracts and varied organizational activities providing the rest of the revenue stream.
Minks, who was named president in 2010 after six months as interim president, cited many measures taken since then to hold down spending. These include reallocation of faculty among departments and programs, some postponements in filling vacant faculty positions, deferring maintenance when possible, freezing travel, various measures to limit fuel, electricity and other mandatory costs, and increasing class sizes modestly.
Twelve degree programs, headed by Elementary Education, Biology, Occupational Safety and Health, and Psychology, account for about 70 percent of SE undergraduates and those programs continue to receive strong support, according to Minks. Five programs have been discontinued and several others have been modified, he said. The five are Applied Arts & Sciences, Biotechnology, Social Gerontology, Physics, and Environmental Science.
Enrollment reached a peak in 2009 of 4,229 students, due partly to poor job markets in the state’s troubled economy that prompted more students to start, return to or stay in school. Alan Burton, SOSU director of communications, said that it’s been challenging to sustain that peak number in part because of the improving economy.
The number has dropped slightly at Southeastern as at other Oklahoma schools since then and the university has developed several programs to stem the decline, Minks said. While enrollment continued to slip last fall, the spring numbers recovered a bit, he said. Fall classes start Monday but final totals for this fall won’t be available until the end of the first week of school.
Minks credited the efforts of his administrative team for the university’s ability to limit the impact of the drop in state support. “We’ve been able to manage faculty positions effectively and have strengthened our relationship with the faculty,” he said, citing closer cooperation with the Faculty Senate and other faculty members. Southeastern has 141 full-time faculty this year, up from 133 a year earlier.
Assessing the impact of the steady reduction in state appropriations, Minks said the state’s economic problems “have forced Southeastern and all the state’s institutions to reevaluate and tighten our entire operations.” Southeastern has also benefited from the comparative strength of the Bryan County economy, he said, noting, for example, that unemployment here has been lower than the rate in many other areas of the state.
Diane Dixon, the science professor who chairs the Faculty Senate, said in a phone interview that the persistent reduction of state support has limited pay raises generally to mandatory raises for years served and promotions. Merit increases have generally not been allotted for several years, which dampens faculty morale, she said. In assessing the impact on students she said, “We’ve struggled” because of the diminished state support, “and lost some faculty members as a result.”
She said she believes there’s been an increased reliance on adjunct professors and a push for more online classes, in which there are sometimes considerably more students than in regular classroom sections.
“Online classes have a lot of potential but should have limits on the number of students enrolled.” Dixon has been on the faculty for 18 years and said she feels the administration-faculty relationship has improved the past couple of years. Monthly meetings with administration leaders are one indicator of improvement, she said, noting also that a recent faculty forum was the first in several years.
The university has built its financial reserves significantly in the past three years, and will reach the 8.33 percent required by the Regional Universities governing board by 2014, he said. SOSU has also been able to complete several construction projects in recent years. The work includes renovation of the former student activities center to provide more space for the theater department ,a new classroom building that houses the Computer Science and other departments, and finishing touches on other work..
Minks also lauded the establishment of a Complete College America program, which focuses particularly on older adults and working nonprofessionals. Participants are organized in groups of 15 to 20 and moved through courses together, in conventional 16-week sessions or accelerated eight-week sessions, with online and night and weekend classes a key part of the program. The courses are offered on campus and in SOSU facilities in other cities. CCA is part of a national initiative aimed at significantly increasing the number of Americans with a college degree or college credential.
In addition, other university programs continue to expand, Minks said. The Oklahoma Small Business Development Center, which is based at the university, is now one of only four such programs in Oklahoma to receive full accreditation without conditions from the Association of Small Business Development Centers. Through a state, federal and university partnership, the center has helped create business start-ups and expansions. Last year its advisers helped with the successful start up of 275 new Oklahoma businesses.
(Ted Stanton is a retired journalism professor emeritus from the University of Houston and former editor and writer for The Wall Street Journal.)