Lawmakers Should Align Higher Ed Spending to Better Prepare Ohio’s Future Workforce

Greg R. Lawson Mar 26, 2021

Deliberations over Ohio’s biennial operating budget are well underway, and the higher education portion of the budget remains one of the largest areas of spending. Unfortunately, taxpayer dollars are not being used as effectively as they should, and lawmakers need to build upon their past efforts and more appropriately align higher education spending to better prepare Ohio’s future workforce.

Community colleges play a key role in teaching more than 180,000 students the skills that employers demand and that lead to good paying jobs. Ohio’s community colleges provide faster workforce credentialing through direct training and hiring programs with businesses and industry partnerships. They do this often at less cost to students than a four-year university, with three credit hours from Edison State, for example, costing less than half of what the University of Toledo and The Ohio State University charge, and one-tenth the cost at the University of Dayton. 

Despite providing more bang for the buck, community colleges receive less than $500 million of the approximately $2 billion from the State Share of Instruction line item in the budget—a line item that is not, but should be, transparent in delineating how much taxpayer money goes to four-your institutions and how much goes to community colleges.

Additionally, access to Ohio College Opportunity Grants (OCOG) for low-income students attending community colleges is practically non-existent. This, despite the success of community colleges in helping students gain in-demand job skills. This lack of access is due to language in Ohio law that implements what is commonly known as a “Pell-first” policy. This policy restricts OCOGs from being awarded to students when a Pell Grant covers anything beyond the cost of tuition, which, due to the affordability of community colleges results in these students nearly always being ineligible for OCOGs. Unfortunately, this Pell-first requirement ignores the myriad of additional costs that are a barrier to lower-income students pursuing associate degrees. 

A further obstacle to many students attending community college is that OCOGs are not available to students earning certificates—for jobs such as working on automobiles, information technology, supply chain management, and welding—that are demanded by many employers. And Pell Grants cannot be used to cover the costs of these types of certificates at all. While Senator Rob Portman is working to fix this problem at the national level, the Ohio General Assembly could eliminate the Pell-first requirement and include language in the budget that would open the OCOG program to students earning these types of job certificates. 

In every state budget, lawmakers are tasked with ensuring that taxpayer dollars are used effectively to fund the state’s priorities, which in the case of higher education means educating Ohio’s students so they can find good paying jobs in Ohio. By this criteria, Ohio’s higher education budget is falling short. To change course, lawmakers should increase transparency on how the state funds higher ed and reform the OCOG program. In doing so, lawmakers can build upon their initial efforts and better align higher education spending to prepare Ohio’s future workforce.

Greg R. Lawson is a research fellow at The Buckeye Institute with expertise on Ohio’s budget, local government, state and local taxes, education and education funding, transportation funding, and occupational licensing.