The cost of a college degree keeps going up, and in Oklahoma, financial support for higher education from the legislature keeps going down.
We're told the only way to advance in the world today is with an advanced degree, something beyond high school, so college debt keeps adding up and the cycle goes on and on.
It's a story with no easy answer, and it's also the story of a modern-day college president who combined shoe leather, and elbow grease, and turned it into a billion dollars.
He did it so that a first-generation college student from a forgotten spot in LeFlore County, and thousands more like her, could make themselves, and their state, So Much More.
If you take a walk with Burns Hargis across his flagship campus, you'll hear of the modern role of a university president - one part academic, one part politician, two parts fund-raiser; well, with state support of higher education having fallen like a rock in Oklahoma for years now, make that almost-constant fund-raiser.
“Definitely a large part of what I do. And what all of us have to do,” he said.
Fresh off a five-year, billion-dollar-plus fundraising drive, Hargis is pausing briefly to catch his breath; raising money is the grind that never ends.
“I try to deal in reality; and what are the circumstances, and what are the prospects for those circumstances to change, and I think we're gonna have to do it ourselves,” Hargis said.
OSU actually brought in about $1.3 billion from the drive that began in the teeth of the Great Recession and ended in December; from 103,000 donors, 45,000 of whom had never contributed to the university before.
“The game changer is the 100,000 donors, and if you do a good job in keeping donors informed, and convincing them that their gift had the intended positive consequences, they haven't given their last gift,” Hargis said.
With half the billion dollars devoted to scholarships, if you were one who contributed, Tayler Jones is someone you helped.
Jones comes from a spot-in-the-road in LeFlore County; a high school class of 32 in a town where college is mostly an afterthought.
“I actually think I was the only one that went farther than an hour away from home for college,” she said.
Now in Stillwater, she's thriving as a psychology major who wants to devote her career to helping children.
She's planning for graduate work, research, a doctorate, a limitless future thanks to her drive and hard-working parents back home.
“It was definitely an expectation of me. My parents definitely pushed academics from the time I started school,” she said.
And it's paid off in the Psychology Department, where her accomplishments already rate a spot on the wall.
Scholarships from the OSU Foundation made it possible, in return for her good grades and hard work.
“Without my scholarships I would have had a much tougher route to get here, and they're essential to my success here at OSU. So, very honored, very thankful for them,” Jones said.
But what about so many of the others saddled by college debt and hoping a degree is a ticket to the middle class?
Or all those who never made it this far because anything beyond high school was never even a consideration at home.
“As you get more and more people who have an education, an advanced education, it will begin to spread, but until it's part of the culture, it's difficult for it to happen,” Hargis said.
With college costs rising, and a legislature that has cut state support of OSU students by 34 percent over the past 15 years - from covering more than half the cost of a typical student in 2000 to 17 percent today - that shift in thinking doesn't come over night.
“We've just got to provide the access, provide the preparation and provide the support that enables these kids to achieve their dreams. And once enough of 'em do, then the people they influence will do it as well,” said Hargis.
But until that happens, he will keep churning out the appeals, knowing that across Oklahoma, there are more kids dreaming of what lies beyond their spots-in-the-road.
In a state that needs every one of them, if it's to ever be So Much More.
“And every student in Oklahoma who is ready, willing and able to come to the university should be able to do that,” Hargis said. “And when we reach that point, then I'll feel like we've made a real, provided a real benefit to our state.”
If you know someone working to make Oklahoma So Much More, let us know about them at email@example.com.
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