By virtually any measure, the last few years have been dreadful for higher education in Oklahoma. Declining enrollment, uncompetitive faculty/staff wages, relentless turnover among students and employees, collapsing academic standards, steadily weakening financial support, relentless online competition, the catastrophic impact of COVID-19, and a steady pressure to turn our colleges and universities into glorified trade schools have eroded faculty/staff morale and made the future of higher education in Oklahoma increasingly uncertain.

In terms of enrollment alone, the last decade proved little short of devastating. Between the 2011-2012 and 2020-2021 academic years, the unduplicated headcount enrollment at all public colleges and universities in the state fell 21.5%. Community colleges suffered the most, dropping 34.5%, while regional universities fell 20% and private institutions fell 27%. Our public research schools — the University of Oklahoma (OU) and Oklahoma State University (OSU) — were largely insulated from the decline, dropping 0.2% and 2.9% respectively on their main campuses, but the overall trend is deeply concerning and began well before the COVID pandemic decimated the higher education landscape. As devastating as those numbers are, it is important to remember that averages can mask much larger declines at specific institutions. At Cameron University in Lawton, for example, enrollment plummeted 44.7% over the same period, a jaw-dropping plunge that is unlikely to continue but is also utterly unsustainable.

The loss of enrollment has forced most colleges and universities to shed faculty and staff, either through cutbacks or attrition, and to reorganize to save money. Many have made commendable progress, though faculty/staff morale has suffered and contributed to a steady rush for the exits as people flee to more secure or lucrative environments in other states. And the financial woes have been fueled by the state Legislature, which has reduced the percentage of state appropriations devoted to higher education steadily for more than 30 years. In 1990 Oklahoma allocated 15.8% of all state revenue to higher ed; in 2021 it allocated 10.9%, the lowest amount in state history.

Yet these are hardly the only problems plaguing higher ed. The population of young people is shrinking in many places, and especially in Southwest Oklahoma. That means fewer students for our schools and ultimately fewer taxpayers and consumers to fuel our economic growth even if graduates stay in the area, which fewer and fewer do. The population of Comanche County shrank between the 2000 and 2010 census, and our people consistently move away to pursue higher paying jobs or greater amenities elsewhere.

Even when they stay, the pressure from online educational platforms and the ease with which students can commute to other schools weakens our local institutions. We have already largely destroyed traditional high school educations by giving students so many choices that we have diluted the experience entirely. Students home school, or pursue online education, or take concurrent classes at schools outside Southwest Oklahoma either online or by commuting to Oklahoma City, and the result is fewer ties between students in the same high school or between students and their communities. All of this has been done in the name of choice, or as a response to COVID, but the consequence is that we have weakened enrollment everywhere at virtually the same time and forced colleges and universities to frantically find ways to attract or retain students. Their only options are to create new degree or credential programs or aggressively try to retain their current students, which are both challenging strategies with reduced staff and faculty, or to make college easier by reducing standards.

No school would openly admit to doing such a thing, but grade inflation has been a staple of American higher education since at least 1983. The turning point came in the late 1990s, when an “A” became the most prevalent grade awarded nationwide in our colleges and universities. It is a disturbing trend, but one that is largely unavoidable when schools must compete with one another for a limited number of students and when those students are increasingly coddled as consumers who must be satisfied rather than individuals who should be challenged to grow intellectually. We are, in effect, blundering our way towards academic mediocrity and economic stagnation.

If we have any hope of countering these trends we must act decisively and without delay, and each of us has a role to play. First, contact your state legislators and tell them that higher education matters and that they must stop schools from contracting with out-of-state entities that provide online education. Doing so outsources Oklahoma jobs and Oklahoma money. Second, tell them to allocate raises for faculty and staff in higher ed. We simply cannot compete with other states for highly qualified people if they refuse, and the losers in that equation will be our children. Third, contact your local school board or superintendent of schools and tell them the same thing. Tell them to stop contracting with entities outside their county or Southwest Oklahoma when there are local colleges and universities like Cameron available to them. They weaken us all when they send our students and our money outside the region. And tell them to raise salaries so we stop losing so many good people to Texas.

Finally, take a moment and think about what a university education should look like. There are those who want to make universities trade schools, to find ways to get high school students associate degrees, and to eliminate courses like history and English and communication and art and music because they lack practical application. Those who make such arguments are profoundly mistaken, for real education takes time and foundational general education courses provide for a higher quality of life and promote critical thinking, reading, research, writing, and communication skills that transcend narrow technical training. They enable graduates to succeed in a wide array of fields and to contribute to society as informed citizens. Only in colleges and universities are those courses coupled with appropriate career-oriented classes to produce a well-rounded person, which is why higher education has been the engine that drives our economic growth and the glue that helps hold our society together for the last one hundred years.

We cannot hope to grow or prosper without it.

Lance Janda holds a PhD in History from the University of Oklahoma and has more than 30 years of experience in higher education. He is the author of “Stronger Than Custom: West Point and the Admission of Women”, among other works.