The Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education passed agenda items relating to Oklahoma higher education’s COVID-19 response, including approving state-allocated funds and waiving some service fees for this summer.
The regents unanimously passed an item on the agenda approving the allocation of state-approved funds to higher education institutions and programs for FY 2021. The 2020 State Legislature approved $770,414,742 for allocation to Oklahoma colleges and universities — a 3.95 percent decrease from last year’s appropriation of $802,070,058.
The agenda item stated that Oklahoma’s Promise — also known as the Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program — would receive $70 million in funding for FY 2021. Institutional budgets — which include appropriations, tuition and fees and other revolving fund income — will be presented to the state regents for approval at the group’s June 25 meeting.
According to the item, OU will receive $184,732,222 in total appropriations — with $102,930,741 to its Norman campus, $71,334,290 to the Health Sciences Center, $5,966,464 to the OU-Tulsa campus and $4,500,727 to the OU Law Center.
Chair Joseph Parker said state higher education’s fee structures are generally designed as they are because fees help supplement diminishing state appropriations.
The regents also passed an item outlining Oklahoma’s Promise’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the Oklahoma’s Promise website, the program “allows eighth-, ninth- or 10th-grade students from families with an income of $55,000 or less to earn a college tuition scholarship. Students must also meet academic and conduct requirements in high school.”
According to the agenda item, normally the program’s policy requires parents to submit income documentation for their most recent tax year income. However, current policy also allows parents of tenth-grade students to use the tax year corresponding with that student’s spring semester.
Under this provision, according to the agenda item, parents whose 2019 income exceeded $55,000 but who expect their 2020 income to fall less than $55,000 due to recent job and income losses can submit an application based on their 2020 estimated income. The application must be submitted by June 30 and will be held as pending until their 2020 income taxes are complete and their income is verified at less than $55,000.
According to the agenda item, between March 14 and May 2, over 350,000 Oklahomans filed initial claims for unemployment insurance — more than the total number of claims filed for the “past several years combined. As a result of recent income losses, the 2020 income of many Oklahoma families may be less than their 2019 income.”
The state regents passed an agenda item waiving certain academic service fees for this summer, as students will be unable to take advantage of many of the services associated with the fees.
According to the agenda item, each state institution has indicated that although their budgets will be impacted by waiving the fees, they expect some offset in retaining their enrollment market share. Some schools even indicate they expect slight increases in summer enrollment as a result of the decision.
According to the petition for the case, Christopher Knox, from Tulsa, Oklahoma, is suing the state regents for breach of contract and unjust enrichment. Knox filed the lawsuit on behalf of all students who paid fees for the spring 2020 semester at any of the 25 universities and colleges overseen by the Oklahoma State Regents and couldn’t use the services they were paying for due to COVID-19.
Apart from waiving service fees for specific summer classes, the agenda item also waived a $40 online fee that would be charged per credit hour taken at OU.
The regents also passed an agenda item that would continue a program providing free pre-ACT tests to 10th-grade students for the 2020-21 academic year.
According to the agenda item, 41,250 10th-grade students in both public and private secondary schools are expected to be able to take the Pre-ACT assessment at a cost to the state regents of $495,000. The regents’ staff has been able to maintain an annual expenditure of under $500,000 for this program for the past four years.
The regents approved a two-year pilot program expanding the tuition waiver cap for Oklahoma residents. According to the agenda item, the expansion is in response to possible enrollment declines across the state amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and is intended to help institutions recruit and retain students for the upcoming fall semester.
According to the agenda item, state institutions are currently only authorized to award tuition waivers for Oklahoma residents if the sum of those waivers doesn’t exceed 3.5 percent of their education and general expenses part one budget, although there are some exceptions. Approval of the pilot program would allow institutions to award tuition waivers for up to 5 percent of their education and general expenses part one budget.
“The (university presidents) believe that if they can have this flexibility within the tuition waiver process, that they can drive higher retention rates, (and) ultimately higher graduation rates,” Chancellor Glen Johnson said. “We thought that it would be prudent to give them this flexibility — not on a permanent basis, but on a two-year pilot basis — to see if, indeed, providing that flexibility will yield even better returns on the retention of students.”
The agenda item states the program is set to span the 2020–21 and 2021–22 academic years, after which time permanent adoption of the policy will be presented to the regents for consideration.
The regents also passed an item approving FY 2021 tuition and fee guidelines to be dispersed among presidents and governing boards of state institutions. According to the item, the guidelines “provide guidance in an effort to ensure access to higher education and to minimize the financial burden on students and their families.”