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Report: Pandemic Will Have 'Long-Lasting Ramifications' For Oklahoma Higher Education


COVID-19 could lead to a long-term drag on Oklahoma colleges’ and universities’ finances, according to a state legislative watchdog's report.

The Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency cited a University of Southern California study from July 2020 that found one in five students were changing their plans to earn a degree on time. Senior Project Manager of Financial Operations and Change Management Zach Sumner said the same study found Asian and Latinx students were far more likely than white students to say they wanted to take fewer classes or that coronavirus affected their decision to re-enroll.

"Minorities make up an increasing proportion of students enrolled in bachelor programs in Oklahoma, indicating that more students are facing the choice of either continuing their education or reducing or dropping their course load," Sumner told lawmakers last week.

The number of out-of-state students paying higher tuition rates is expected to decline, and ongoing travel restrictions on China, Brazil, South Africa and the United Kingdom will mean a drop in international students as well.

"Between 2010 and 2019, these specific countries contributed approximately 23,000 students to Oklahoma’s institutions of higher education," Sumner said.

State Chancellor Glen Johnson told lawmakers Oklahoma’s higher education system has felt some of those drops already.

"The decline in enrollment in Oklahoma, while there has been some, it’s not been as dramatic as declines in other higher education systems across the nation," Johnson said.

There's also the potential for lost revenue from housing if fewer students choose to stay on campuses and additional costs if institutions have to continue offering more robust online courses. Johnson said Oklahoma colleges and universities have been trying to prepare for the financial fallout.

"Sharing faculty between and among institutions, combining back-office functions, and we’re trying to be as proactive as we can be to get out in front to understand that COVID could have some long-term, negative impacts and look at ways where we can achieve efficiency and address the revenue issue," Johnson said.

Oklahoma ranked fifth in the region for higher ed employees let go between September 2019 and September 2020, with 4.6% losing their jobs. Colorado was first, with 20.8%.

Many Oklahoma institutions have committed to full, in-person returns in the fall, but LOFT suggests the state regents evaluate the likelihood and financial impact of declining enrollment.

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.
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