Eastern Oklahoma State College braces for more state budget cuts
Three years of severe state funding reductions lead to academic program and employee cuts and tuition increases
WILBURTON, OK (April 11, 2017) – State budget cuts are forcing Eastern Oklahoma State College to make difficult decisions as the institution braces for a third consecutive year of significantly reduced funding.
As the state of Oklahoma faces an $878 million shortfall for the fiscal year 2018 budget, Eastern President Dr. Stephen E. Smith said all Oklahoma colleges and universities were asked to provide budget impact scenarios for 10, 15 and 20 percent cuts to state appropriations. Smith said a 20 percent state reduction would equal a $1,061,744 cut to Eastern. This is in addition to the $1.4 million cut Eastern received during this fiscal year, which resulted in the elimination of a business degree program and employee positions, as well as fewer class offerings, decreases in departmental budgets and a reduction in institutional scholarships.
Smith said the college has a plan to address the loss of state funding with the suspension of two academic programs, layoffs, a reduction in healthcare benefits for employees of less than 15 years, and the possibility of furlough days for faculty and staff.
“This is the third consecutive year of state revenue shortfalls and severe budget cuts to state agencies. The results have been damaging to the college and the students we serve,” Smith said. “No one wants to reduce academic programs, services to students or benefits to employees, but we feel we have already made cuts to everything we can without damaging our core mission and operations. If these state cuts continue at this magnitude, Eastern Oklahoma State College may not look the same way it looks today.”
To confront the significant loss of funding, Eastern has proposed the suspension of the music program and meat science and food safety program following years of declining enrollment and low graduation rates. Students already majoring in the suspended programs will be provided individualized study plans so they can complete their degrees. However, no new students would be able to declare a major in those programs.
According to the 2016 Low Productivity Report compiled by the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, the meat science and food safety program averaged 3.4 graduates per year during the past five years. The music program had two total graduates during the same five-year period.
“Unfortunately, there is not enough student interest in the two programs identified for suspension. Several factors were considered during the process, including stagnant enrollment, fewer completed degrees and the high cost of instruction for a limited amount of students,” Smith said. “We have to make difficult decisions that are in the best interest of our students and the college as a whole. It is critical that we continually assess student demand, industry changes and workforce needs to make decisions regarding the viability of Eastern’s academic programs.”
Smith said there is a misperception that Eastern’s meats lab produces a profit large enough to cover the program’s expenses by offering slaughtering and processing services to the community. He said the slaughter and retail portion of the program garnered a nearly $6,000 profit in 2016. But that revenue, along with the tuition for a low amount of students, does not cover the funding needed for the program’s two full-time faculty members, equipment and supplies or the maintenance and utility costs to operate the facility.
“The meats lab is an educational lab, not a commercial facility,” Smith said. “Our goal has always been to at least cover the costs to operate, but that has not always happened. We have enjoyed offering this as a service to the community, but we cannot continue to operate the program at a loss.”
In December, Eastern’s Music Department hosted its 90th annual Candlelighting program. Smith said he hopes to see the tradition continue in some form, through a possible coordination of student organizations, community members and local church choirs.
The assessment of low enrollment academic programs and courses will result in the reduction of five total faculty positions and fewer course offerings. A tuition increase is likely, although it only offsets a portion of the total cuts. In addition, the college is also researching options to reduce health insurance benefits for employees of less than 15 years. Those who qualify would have their insurance reduced for the Health Choice High option to the Basic option for a savings of approximately $80,000 next year and $160,000 the following year. Smith said this will impact roughly three-fourths of Eastern’s employees and would not take effect until Jan. 1, 2018. Finally, Eastern will also consider furlough days for all faculty and staff. Furlough days are mandatory leaves of absence without pay and would result in a savings of nearly $20,000 per day for the college.
“Obviously, none of these options are ideal and they hurt,” Smith said. “It is an unfortunate reality of our state’s funding situation.”
Smith said that in addition to the state’s anticipated cuts for next year, there will also be a debt service payment of $9.6 million scheduled for the 2005 Higher Education Capital Bond Issue. Eastern's portion of this payment, which helped build the student center, is $158,000. Smith said this is a payment obligation of the state, but if the money is not allocated, colleges and universities will be responsible for the cost. He added that all colleges and universities are still owed money for this fiscal year as the state tries to make ends meet on other financial obligations. Eastern is still owed $88,201. A state revenue failure in March equated to an additional $32,000 mid-year reduction to Eastern.
Oklahoma Higher Education Chancellor Glen D. Johnson said cuts to Oklahoma public higher education are the deepest in the nation.
“With cuts exceeding $157 million (16.4 percent) from fiscal year 2016 to FY 2017 and current appropriations below 2001 levels, funding has been set back a full generation,” Johnson said. “In this challenging budget environment, difficult choices must be made. Appropriately funding our higher education system must be a top state priority. Without adequate state support, we will be unable to meet our degree and certificate attainment goals and have Oklahoma graduates to meet our workforce needs.”
Smith said the State Regents for Higher Education reported that approximately 2,000 jobs were lost out of higher education last year. With continued budget cuts, another 1,000 jobs are expected to be eliminated this year.
“I encourage our prospective students and community members to reach out to their state legislators to voice their concerns, and for our alumni to share their Eastern story and the difference the college has made in their lives,” Smith said. “We all need to call on lawmakers to consider the long-term effects of these decisions and recognize the critically important impact Eastern has on the citizens of southeast Oklahoma.”