NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — Single and with two young children, Sara Harris balances motherhood, a waitressing job and her life as a full-time college student at the University of Oklahoma. But as the price of a college education continues to rise in Oklahoma, Harris is concerned about the growing mountain of student loan debt that awaits her when she graduates.
"If they raise tuition, it's not going to stop me from getting my education," said Harris, a 32-year-old junior majoring in letters who hopes to attend law school. "It's just going to make my debt larger in the end.
"But I am at the mercy of the system."
That system of higher education in Oklahoma has gotten more expensive for students every year since 2003, when lawmakers handed over the authority to set tuition and mandatory fees to the state regents.
Higher education officials argue that tuition hikes are needed because legislative appropriations, as a percentage of their overall budget, have declined over the years.
But even when higher education received a record $130 million funding increase from the Legislature in 2006, tuition still went up by more than 5 percent.
Harris, who already has $30,000 in student loan debt, says she's paying about $5,000 at OU each semester for tuition, fees and other mandatory costs.
As the Legislature prepares for the 2009 session that begins Feb. 2, lawmakers will be grappling with a budget hole estimated to be about $600 million. Meanwhile, officials with both common and higher education are lobbying for massive increases in funding.
The State Board of Education has requested $290 million for common education's school funding formula and says it needs a total of $470 million to pay for teacher retirement, health insurance and several legislative mandates that have never been funded.
At the same time, the Oklahoma Education Association is seeking a statewide vote on whether to increase school funding by $850 million a year. The OEA wants to raise per-student funding to a regional average, and a vote on the proposal would take place in 2010 unless a special election is set.
Higher education, meanwhile, is seeking at least $80 million above last year's $1.04 billion appropriation to support increased operational costs.
Oklahoma's Chancellor for Higher Education Glen Johnson said if higher education can get $80 million over last year's budget, he has pledged to freeze tuition and mandatory fees at the current level.
"We're very cognizant of what the budget picture looks like," Johnson said. "We are practical and understand that might be very difficult to do.
"But our responsibility is to articulate the need for funding. Even in difficult economic times, there's not a better investment the state can make than investing in higher education."
Johnson himself came under fire last month when he received a $10,000 bonus and a 5 percent boost to his $286,650 salary at the same time the regents are seeking additional funding. The state regents defended the raise, but state Rep. Todd Thomsen, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, described the pay hike as "excessive and unnecessary." Thomsen, R-Ada, said the raise made him question what other wasteful spending was going on within the state's higher education system.
Indeed, some lawmakers are growing weary of taking the blame for rising tuition costs at state colleges and universities, said state Rep. Tad Jones, longtime chairman of the House committee that funds education and now the majority floor leader in the House. There are a number of bills this session that would return tuition-setting authority to the Legislature, and Jones, who has long supported the regents having control, acknowledges that he is rethinking his position.
"I've supported it for years, but even my patience is waning because of the dramatic increases in tuition and the legislators getting the blame for it," said Jones, R-Claremore. "And I think there are a lot of legislators who are tired of that."
With a tight budget this year, Jones said it will be difficult enough just to maintain funding for education, let alone find enough money for increases.
"Given the economic circumstances we're in, those requests will be a tremendous challenge," Jones said. "We're just hoping not to cut education."
State Sen. John Ford, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said both Republicans and Democrats have proposed freezing tuition, and Ford urged higher education leaders to take a close look at their budgets to see where they can reduce costs.
"I spent 34 years in the private sector," said Ford, a longtime executive with Phillips Petroleum. "If your income is down, that may be the period when you need to go in and look at your expenses … and find ways of doing things more efficiently.
"That applies to higher ed, common ed, career tech and every state agency we have. It's certainly the way the business world operates."
That sounds like a good idea to Harris — who says she has had to tighten her family budget by relying on family members for daycare and forgoing a $300 parking pass and instead parking south of campus and taking a bus to school.
"I don't think they should be allowed to just continue to raise tuition every year," Harris said. "We're already suffering from economic hardship as it is.
"The universities should be required to take a look at their own financial situation and make some adjustments before putting it all on the students with tuition and fees."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.