By Richard Read
Oregon will almost certainly begin offering free tuition to some community-college students in fall 2016, leapfrogging all but one other state and a national proposal by President Barack Obama.
Mild criticism persists of the free-tuition measure shepherded through the Legislature by Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton -- and not from quarters you might expect. The Oregon Student Association and the Oregon Community College Association initially opposed Hass's bill. Amendments dispelled their main concerns. But doubts persist over whether free tuition will reach the state's neediest students.
Hass, a longtime education advocate, is pleased that Oregon will follow Tennessee, the first state to offer free tuition starting this fall. Gov. Kate Brown is expected shortly to sign his legislation, Senate Bill 81, assuming that no last-minute legal glitches surface.
Between 4,000 and 6,000 Oregonians could benefit during the first year of the "Oregon Promise" program, which packs a $10 million, one-year budget. Legislators could expand the scheme in future years.
"This just rose to the top as probably the best thing we could offer young people today," Hass said. "Any time more kids get into the post-secondary higher-education system, we're all going to be better off."
Oregon and Tennessee lead a growing national movement for free community-college tuition. On Wednesday, two members of Congress filed a bill, America's College Promise Act, that would pay for two years of community and technical colleges for first-time U.S. students.
The Republican-controlled Congress may not pass the Obama-backed bill. But the legislation reflects a broader push to cut the cost of an undergraduate degree for debt-burdened Americans.
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, a Vermont senator, has introduced his free-public-college platform in the national campaign debate. Bill sponsors Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Virginia, estimate that if all states participate, nine million full-time community college students could save an average $3,800 a year on tuition.
In Oregon, the main beef with Hass's plan is that it could give more money to middle-income students than to the state's most needy high-school graduates.
That's because both the Oregon and Tennessee programs use a so-called "last dollar" approach. Instead of giving a student a tuition break first, as Obama's plan would do, the state programs begin by deducting any Pell-grant support and state need-based awards received by students, lastly adding Promise money for qualified high-school graduates.
Therefore a student whose family earned too much to qualify for Pell and state support such as an Oregon Opportunity Grant could end up with more Oregon Promise money than a student from a poor family. An Oregon Promise student could receive a maximum $4,900.
An amendment to the bill required low-income students who received Oregon Promise money to get a minimum of $1,000. The change persuaded the Oregon Community College Association to switch from opposing the bill to neutrality.
"If you're a middle-income student that does not receive Pell, this program will cover your tuition," said Andrea Henderson, the Community College Association's executive director. "If you're low-income, you'll get a minimum $1,000, which will help with books and fees -- but low-income students are still taking out loans."
A preferable approach, Henderson said, would be for the Legislature to fully fund the Oregon Opportunity Grant, which is the state's largest need-based grant program for students planning on college. The Oregon Office of Student Access and Completion planned to disburse more than $58 million in Opportunity Grant money to about 35,000 students for the 2014-15 academic year. But demand exceeded appropriations.
"Only a fraction of those eligible for the Opportunity Grant actually get it," Henderson said. "Our position, and that of the HECC, was that available money go first to the Opportunity Grant." HECC is the acronym for the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, a higher-ed oversight panel that would administer Oregon Promise.
Another problem with the Oregon Promise approach is that it could unintentionally discriminate against four-year degree candidates in their first two years at universities by funding only community-college students, said José Padín, a Portland State University sociology professor speaking for the American Association of University Professors' Oregon chapter.
But national expert Sara Goldrick-Rab, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of educational policy studies and sociology, likes the Oregon Promise program so much that she traveled to Salem to testify for it. "Oregon's ahead of the whole rest of the country here, at No. 2," Goldrick-Rab said.
She said it's important to make the first two years of college as affordable as possible.
"Then if someone drops out after two years, and doesn't transfer to a four-year college, it's not the end of the world." Goldrick-Rab said. "In today's system, if you try college and it doesn't work out, you're stuck with debt -- and you're a high-school grad, and all you can afford to pay is the interest."
One goal is to lower the overall cost of a bachelor's degree, she said. "If you have to choose to take loans, I would much rather people take them for their third and fourth years, for their bachelor's degrees," she said, "than in your first two years when you have no experience with college."
Goldrick-Rab said a similar free-tuition proposal recently fell apart in Mississippi. She wasn't confident legislators would pass the Oregon bill. "But Mark Hass was just absolutely determined," she said.
Ben Cannon, HECC executive director, said that assuming Brown signs the bill within the required 30 days, the commission will strive to implement it in ways that encourage degree completion instead of merely community-college access. That potential excites students, who felt earlier versions of Hass's bill wouldn't help them complete degrees, said Daniel McCall, Oregon Student Association communications director.
Cannon anticipates that, as with the Opportunity Grant, demand will exceed the $10 million allocation.
"That's part of the reason that we asked that the bill permit the commission to concentrate on graduates of certain high schools or school districts, instead of merely first-come first-served," Cannon said. "We wanted the ability to say, 'Let's take a representative sample of schools and school districts in rural and urban and rich and poor areas,' -- or maybe we'd use different criteria."
Commissioners have not yet discussed whether to enable students to apply for Oregon Promise money, or whether just to award it based on certain criteria.
To be eligible, a student must have been an Oregon resident for at least a year prior to enrolling in community college. The student must have completed high school or the equivalent, earning a grade point average of at least 2.5.
Students must enroll in community colleges within six months of high-school graduation. They have to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, known as FAFSA, for each academic year.
Mike Krause, who runs the equivalent Tennessee Promise program, also testified at the Oregon Legislature in favor of Hass's bill. Krause cranked up his state' system in just 90 days so students could receive tuition support in time for the start of classes this fall.
More than 58,000 students applied for Tennessee's $14 million program, which will help about 16,000 students attend community college.
"While it sounds like an education program, Tennessee Promise isn't actually that at all," Krause said. "It's a jobs program."
Krause said the program is already attracting employers to the state who know they'll find qualified job applicants, and who can tell employees that their kids can attend free community college. He said that one of the best effects so far of the program is that it's driven Tennessee to No. 1 in the nation for numbers of completed FAFSA forms.
Krause believes the program will drive up Tennessee's ranking from 42nd in the nation for residents 25 or older with a bachelor's degree. Oregon has ranked 18th on that list.
Lost in all the publicity over various plans, Cannon said, is the fact that in Oregon, community college is already free for most enrolled Oregonians. Pell grants and Oregon Opportunity grants cover tuition for most students, he said.
"But free isn't really free, because tuition is not the majority of costs that community-college students bear," Cannon said. "There are costs of living -- transportation, books, housing and food -- and this new program is not designed to meet those needs."
(c)2015 The Oregonian