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Higher education regents outline legislative agenda

LAWTON, Okla._Local state legislators met at Cameron University Monday afternoon to learn more about what's in store for higher education in Oklahoma.

In the first of nine meetings to be held at colleges and universities, the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education presented their legislative agenda for the 2017 fiscal year. Number one on that list is focusing on the state's budget for higher education.

Ultimately, the regents are bracing for a state budget shortfall of around $1 billion that is expected for fiscal year 2017. The hope is that state funding for higher education will remain the same, at approximately $963 million, to continue providing Oklahoma's students with a quality education, much of which comes from state-funded scholarships.

Nikki Kirk, a senior psychology major at Cameron University, says if it weren't for her state-funded scholarship, she would have been forced to apply for student loans to pay for school.

"I and my siblings have been able to attend college because of OHLAP, and because of the PLUS program specifically," Kirk said.

Kirk is one of 65,000 total Oklahoma students that have received the Oklahoma Promise scholarship that covers tuition for up to five years of college.

Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education Chancellor Dr. Glen Johnson says that scholarship program, along with other services provided through state funding, are what he will spend the next six months campaigning to maintain.

"Asking that the cut to higher education be minimized and that higher education be protected. We are the entity that has to produce the jobs to meet our work force needs in the next five years," Johnson said.

State Representative Ann Coody says in her 11-years with the state legislature, she knows that there are good years and there are bad years for the state budget.

"This is one of those years when we do have a great shortfall in funds and we are all aware of that, but we have to do the best that we can with what we have. So, a lot of the things we will do this year will be to work on policy," Rep. Coody said.

The regents approved the budget request Thursday and a letter has been sent to Governor Mary Fallin with an outline of their requests.

Kirk says she doesn't want anyone to miss out on the higher education she's receiving if there's a shortfall in state funding.

"I don't want my younger sister or anyone in the future to feel a hindrance because of graduating with debt. I don't want them to feel like they can’t pursue a higher education because of that," Kirk said.

Other topics of discussion at the meeting were maintaining the current weapons laws on college campuses and continued participation in Complete College America, a national non-profit program that works to significantly increase the number of Americans with quality career certificates or college degrees.

Coming up in February, when the Oklahoma legislative session starts, the regents will formally make the budget request to the appropriations committee in the House and Senate.

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