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Dr. Glen D. Johnson, chancellor of the Oklahoma State System of Higher Education, met with more than 50 officials from southeast Oklahoma recently, including ECU President Richard Rafes and local legislators in McAlester to discuss the importance of improving the state's and region's ability to compete in a global business environment and higher education's role in making that happen.

"There is no doubt that higher education is the engine that drives economic development in the southeast and throughout our state," said Johnson. "As we enter our second century, the key to competing globally will be the commitment we make as a state to higher education. Simply stated, we need more college graduates in Oklahoma to fill jobs that meet the needs of business and to raise our per capita income."

The event was part of a statewide initiative launched by Johnson last fall that brings together local legislators, college and university presidents and community leaders in a forum to discuss higher education's goals, initiatives and agenda for the upcoming legislative session.

"We are pleased that Dr. Johnson met with our local legislators and community leaders to share the good news about higher education in our state and our region," Rafes said. "In the last few years, ECU has seen growth in enrollment and the number of graduates. And, the best news is that the majority of our graduates stay in the state after they get their degrees. We need to make certain that our students are an important priority in the coming legislative session.

"ECU plays a leading role in advancing economic development in our community, " he added, pointing to ECU's role in securing the CLEET facility for Ada and its leadership in planning a proposed East Main Cultural Arts District.

With many local legislators in attendance, Johnson thanked the Legislature for the permanent funding source for Oklahoma's Promise, also known as the Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program, that takes effect this year. He also noted that legislative action over the last two years had significantly reduced the per-student funding gap from $1,212 to $346, compared to the national average.

"Eliminating that funding gap is within reach and doing so would significantly reduce student debt and allow our institutions to increase course offerings. And, ultimately, it would help us increase graduation rates and address our primary goal of more graduates," Johnson said.

The total request for new funding for FY2009 is $145.2 million, which Johnson said would enhance Oklahoma's ability to compete. The new funding would allow the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education to allocate more funding to colleges and universities to support current operating obligations, including mandatory costs such as utilities and insurance. It also would reduce the financial barriers for students who have a difficult time affording college by enhancing student financial aid programs.

Johnson emphasized the need for the Legislature to provide the public matching funds for the endowed chair program to attract and retain highly talented faculty and enhance the quality of learning. Other priorities include providing local economic development grants to institutions and boosting the EDGE research endowment.

Rafes said the message was well received by the legislators and community leaders present, several of whom expressed support for higher education in the conversations that followed.

Additional information about higher education's legislative agenda is available online.

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