Oklahoma higher education is a good deal, but still expensive
Almost 20 years after finishing college, Aiesha Bereal still owes more than $100,000 on student loans.
And, with her own children approaching college age, she has some firsthand experience to share with them.
Don’t borrow for college unless you have to, and don’t borrow any more than is absolutely necessary.
“I’m up to my eyeballs in debt,” said Bereal, a social worker with Tulsa Public Schools.
Oklahoma higher education officials say the state’s colleges and universities are “affordable,” and relatively speaking they are correct. Oklahoma’s public colleges and universities — and even its private institutions — are relatively inexpensive.
“Relatively” being the operative word.
Spending $20,000 a year (in state) to attend Oklahoma State University or the University of Oklahoma does sound better than $26,000 for the University of Kansas, $31,000 for the University of Illinois or $50,000 or more to attend a private university. Earlier this year the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranked Oklahoma’s higher education system fifth for affordability.
But for most Oklahoma families, $20,000 is still a lot of money. So is the $14,000 to attend a regional university, or $11,000 for community college or technical school.
A 2016 analysis by the University of Pennsylvania ranked Oklahoma in the middle of the pack for affordability when measured as cost as a share of household income. Only Oklahoma’s public fouryear nondoctoral universities, such as Northeastern State and Rogers State, rank in the top 10.
The Penn study particularly notes the lack of strictly need-based state aid. Elite students — and elite athletes — can get lots of scholarship help. Good-to-fair students, not so much.
This, too, is something Bereal knows about. Her son will be going to Boise State next year on an athletic scholarship.
Her daughter, a high school junior, will be like most other Oklahoma high school students with college aspirations — looking to save every dollar she can.
“Tulsa Community College is probably where she’d start off,” Bereal said.
Shelby Sutton, who lives in Rogers County, is in her first semester at Tulsa Community College. She’s commuting, she says, because it’s cheaper than attending nearby Rogers State.
College, Sutton said, “can get pricey really fast.”
Sutton wants to be a vocational agriculture teacher, which means transferring to a fouryear university at some point. She figures she’ll eventually have to borrow money to complete a degree.
“I suppose it can be a little stressful when you think about paying it back,” Sutton said, “but I think I can do it.”
Katie Hyso, a Northeastern State sophomore from Kansas, Oklahoma, works at the school’s alumni center and lives at home to save money, but she figures she’ll still owe about $50,000 at graduation.
Hyso said debt is a powerful motivator.
“I cannot fail college,” she said. “I can’t drop out. I have to finish.”
Higher education officials say almost half of Oklahoma students leave the public education system with no debt, and those who do have student loans tend to owe much less than graduates nationally.
Oklahoma’s Promise, also known as the Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program, provides financial aid to about 18,000 students a year who meet certain need, academic and behavior standards.
But preparing financially for college takes planning and a degree of awareness that many Oklahomans still lack. For instance, those planning to begin college next fall — in 2018 — must complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, by October of this year to be eligible for federal assistance as a freshman.
Most state, institutional and private scholarships also require early application, and students and their families must sign up no later than the 10th grade for Oklahoma’s Promise.
For some people, the process and the sticker shock can be a decisive deterrent to post-secondary education.
Bereal said a student she worked with dropped out of college because she and her family didn’t understand that while she had a scholarship that covered tuition, books, fees and housing, it did not cover food.
“She couldn’t get a meal plan she could afford,” Bereal said.
A surprise to many families is that tuition and fees at state schools are typically about half the cost of attendance. Room, board, books and other living expenses account for the other half, and that’s usually where students can economize the most.
In the end, coping with the cost of higher education can be mostly a matter of determination. Trico Blue, a Northeastern State student from Hulbert, “almost had a panic attack” when he realized the scholarship that had paid for his first four years of college would no longer be available.
Blue changed majors a couple of times and needs at least two more semesters to finish.
“But I knew my education was worth it,” said Blue, a performer with NSU’s River City Players. “Plus, I’d gone this far, I have to continue.”
Morgan McClish, of Tulsa, listens during student orientation Aug. 18 at Tulsa Community College.