The timing was ironic. Lawmakers in Salem talked last week about providing free community college tuition to some Oregon high school graduates. The governor is interested in the idea, but couldn’t be there because he was in the midst of negotiations seeking a “grand bargain” to help pay for K-12 education.
The state is committed to K-12 education, but there’s broad agreement the funding is inadequate. At the college level, the state has been reducing its level of support for years. So why would the state make a new commitment when it can’t pay for the ones it has already made?
The free tuition idea came from Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, according to a report in the Statesman Journal newspaper, who said, “We have to recognize that ultimately it will cost us more to deal with those people in the social service system, or worse, in the correctional system. That’s more expensive than a couple of years of community college.”
The cost was estimated to be about $250 million for two years, possibly reduced by use of federal Pell Grants and $100 per term payments by the students. A handout suggested a 2.0 high school grade point average would be required.
Hass hasn’t heard any opposition, the newspaper said, but it also quoted Rep. Mark Johnson, R-Hood River, warning about “bold initiatives that make good headlines and soundbites for a day or two but then aren’t as sustainable.”
It reminded us of the national surge of enthusiasm that greeted Oregon’s talk about a “Pay it Forward” plan in August. The idea is that students would attend college tuition-free and then pay for it with a percent of their income for 20-plus years after they left school. All Oregon did was decide to study the idea, but it generated lots of soundbites with no concept of how to pay the estimated $9 billion upfront cost.
Meanwhile, a significant percentage of Oregon’s high school graduates who do go to college must pay for remedial classes because they aren’t ready for college classes. We’d be better off to fix that with funding and standards at the high school level rather than committing more resources we don’t have to these well-intentioned but unrealistic tuition proposals.