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Gov. Stitt calls for higher education consolidation. What could that look like in Oklahoma?

Students walk on Oklahoma State University's campus in Stillwater.
Gary Lawson
Oklahoma State University
Students walk on Oklahoma State University's campus in Stillwater.

Gov. Kevin Stitt caught some lawmakers off guard Monday when he called for consolidating public colleges and universities in his State of the State speech.

Stitt offered few specific details in his speech except to say he wants to see legislation that incentivizes higher education models that fulfill state workforce needs. Colleges that aren’t meeting those demands should be consolidated, he said.

The governor is seeking to eliminate redundancies in higher education by encouraging smaller institutions to share some of their administrative costs and eliminate duplicative programs, Stitt spokesperson Abegail Cave said Tuesday.

“There are smaller publicly funded colleges around the state that are near other similarly sized colleges, all offering similar sets of programs,” she said. “If two colleges are 40 minutes apart, it makes sense for them to complement each other’s programs, not offer all the same.”

The same idea could also apply to the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University, Cave said.

Gov. Kevin Stitt prepares to give his annual State of the State speech Monday at the Oklahoma state Capitol. (Photo by Kyle Phillips/For Oklahoma Voice) It doesn’t make sense for OSU to offer meteorology degrees when OU has a nationally recognized meteorology program. Similarly, OU should let OSU take the lead on agriculture issues because that’s where OSU excels, Cave said.

During a visit to Eastern Oklahoma State College in Wilburton last month, Stitt encouraged the two-year college to consider sharing programs and resources with other nearby colleges, according to the McAlester News-Capital.

“I want to empower our colleges and universities to be the best in the nation,” Stitt said Monday. “To be the best, we need to shift our focus to outcome-based higher education models and stop subsidizing institutions with low enrollment and low graduation rates.”

In response to the governor’s speech, higher education Chancellor Allison Garrett said she appreciated Stitt’s comments in support of growing student enrollment to meet state workforce needs.

“Our higher education institutions are always looking for ways to serve Oklahoma better and more efficiently,” she said in a statement.

Oklahoma has 25 public colleges and universities.

House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, and Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said they didn’t know the details of Stitt’s consolidation vision and wanted to hear more about his higher education plans.

House Minority Leader Cyndi Munson, D-Oklahoma City, said state leaders should focus on investing more in higher education after years of budget cuts.

McCall McCall said the Oklahoma Legislature typically supports consolidations that are driven by colleges and universities. Some lawmakers may resist proposals to force schools to consolidate, he said.

McCall said the University Center of Southern Oklahoma in Ardmore merged with Murray State College, which is based in Tishomingo. Through that 2021 merger, UCSO became Murray State College Ardmore.

“If that’s the kind of consolidation that the governor is talking about, that has been supported by the Legislature when the consolidation is voluntary,” he said. “If it’s just arbitrarily picking two-year colleges or regional universities, picking winners and losers, that’s going to be a legislative fight.”

Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore, who leads the House committee on education funding, said there have been conversations at the Capitol about consolidating higher education institutions since he first took office in 2012.

“I personally think that it’s something that should be looked at,” he said.

Small colleges and universities are a vital part of rural Oklahoma, he said. McBride said he doesn’t support closing colleges, but he questioned whether some institutions might function better if they partnered with a larger entity with more resources.

In 2017, then-Gov. Mary Fallin directed the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education to develop a plan for the administrative consolidation of colleges and other higher education institutions.

The following year, the State Regents issued a report recommending the consolidation of governing boards for some schools and urged community colleges to be governed by the OU Board of Regents, Oklahoma A&M Board of Regents or the Regional University System of Oklahoma Board of Regents.

State Regent Jeff Hickman, a former speaker of the Oklahoma House who termed out of the Legislature in 2016, said some lawmakers and community colleges pushed back on that recommendation.

Citing a shortage of health care workers and engineers in Oklahoma, Hickman said the State Regents are reevaluating the higher education funding formula in a way that ensures colleges and universities are offering in-demand degree programs.

Officials at Boeing and Tinker Air Force Base have repeatedly said they could hire every engineering graduate from OU and OSU and still not have enough new employees to meet their needs, Hickman said.

“It’s really incumbent upon us to make sure we’re doing everything we can to not just produce the workforce that those employers need, but to provide those opportunities for students in Oklahoma to get that degree that’s going to be life changing and that they can use to earn a wonderful living in Oklahoma without having to move to Dallas or Denver or wherever it may be,” he said.

Oklahoma Voice is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence.

Carmen covers state government, politics and health care for Oklahoma Voice. A Norman native, she previously worked in Arizona and Virginia before she began reporting on the Oklahoma Capitol.
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