Study Assesses Capital Needs of Regional Colleges, Universities
OKLAHOMA CITY – Oklahoma House of Representatives Speaker Pro Tempore Kyle Hilbert, R-Bristow, and Minority Leader Cyndi Munson, D-Oklahoma City, today held an interim study assessing the capital needs of the Regional University System of Oklahoma (RUSO) as well as for rural colleges and universities. IS23-077 was held before the House Higher Education & CareerTech Committee. "Our network of regional and rural colleges and universities serves thousands of students each year, preparing them for a diverse array of careers," the lawmakers said in a joint statement. "Having access to these schools benefits these individuals in innumerable ways. This also benefits the communities where these students live and work. When we have a more educated workforce, we attract more businesses and more jobs, which in turn strengthens local economies and our entire state. This study helped us better assess how the Legislature can support these schools in their missions, knowing that an investment in education is an investment in a stronger, better Oklahoma." Mark Tygret, vice chancellor of budget and finance at the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, presented a history of legislative investment in capital needs and deferred maintenance for rural and urban two- and four-year colleges. He explained the master lease program as an example of helping schools take care of their building and maintenance projects. The program is a huge asset in making campus more functional and more efficient and making for a better experience for all who enter – from students to staff. Tygret suggested a structure similar to what has worked to improve transportation in the state could benefit regional and rural higher education institutions as well. He also mentioned the Legislature's new Legacy Capital Fund, which makes use of available state capital to meet agency needs instead of requiring them to secure bonds at market interest rates. Former Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb, now president of the University of Central Oklahoma, spoke about RUSO's commitment to affordability and accessibility. RUSO colleges and universities are spread all over Oklahoma, he said, and they are committed to meeting students where they are. He specifically mentioned the number of returning adult learners the system serves. More than 45,000 students are enrolled in RUSO, he said, with 57% coming from rural Oklahoma. A large number of students come from families with lower-than average income. Munson said she was one of these students who came from a single-parent household without money for college. She's a proud RUSO graduate. She thanked the presenters for giving students like her an opportunity to graduate college. She said it's her hope the Legislature can find better ways to support the schools so they don't have to be quite so innovative with their finances. Lamb said 92% of RUSO graduates are employed within one year. Nearly half graduate without college debt, and the others graduated with $11,000 less in debt than the national average. The return on investment for Oklahoma from these graduates is $9.55 for every $1 of state funding. The schools also meet many critical workforce needs, he said. Against that backdrop, Lamb then shared various current capital needs of RUSO's campuses. Other presenters before the committee were: Dr. Kyle Stafford, president of Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College; John McArthur, president of Cameron University; and Julie Dinger, president of Oklahoma Panhandle State University. Each shared about their schools' student populations and their building and maintenance needs and asked the Legislature's help in investing in facilities and upgrades. Stafford said school leaders must be creative and innovative to update facilities, many that were built decades ago. Dinger said her school seeks every external grant it can as well as partnerships with other entities to share costs. Both leaders asked the Legislature to consider matching funds to help the schools hold onto assets already in place. "We've got to be price sensitive when it relates to our students," Stafford said. Raising the price of tuition and fees is not the optimal way to fund building and maintenance projects, he said. McArthur said his emphasis is on renovating and refreshing, not building new. This can be done for pennies on the dollar verses the cost of new construction, but it does require hiring people who can work on older buildings as well as on older plumbing and electrical systems. One project on which he's asking the Legislature's help is to update a 1929 building's fire suppression system. At the time the building was constructed, that was a bucket of water, her joked. The facility now needs a better system. Dinger said some critical infrastructure pieces must be replaced as they can no longer be repaired because of their age. She also explained jumps in costs such as property insurance as well as for energy usage. A 657% jump in gas costs happened this year, for example, as the school's provider recalibrated meters for the first time in years. She's looking at energy efficiencies to offset this unintended expense, she said. Americans with Disabilities requirements were part of the presentations as well as security and technology upgrade needs. "We are passionate about what we do, and we are so thankful you are willing to hear from us what our capital needs are," Dinger said. Hilbert noted millions of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds went to regional and rural colleges and universities and asked several school presidents who were not on the list of presenters to give on-the-spot updates on how these funds helped with their needs. Wendell Godwin, president of East Central University said it was cheaper to build a new facility for the school's growing nursing program versus renovating an older facility. The ARPA funds will help in this, he said. The school also is partnering with the Chickasaw Nation on the project, he said. Northeastern State University spent ARPA funds on upgrading HVAC systems to improve air quality in older buildings. Additional funds are being spent on an optometry school on campus. SWOSU spent ARPA money on a new pharmacy school and a rural health center. This will give nursing students adequate space for study and will allow the school to continue growing it's Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) programs.