Bill to study free community college tuition heads to Senate

Governor advocates idea of free college tuition

By Lauren Dake / The Bulletin / @LaurenDake

Published Feb 5, 2014 at 12:01AM

SALEM — Lawmakers are calling it the Oregon promise: two free years of community college for any student who graduates from an Oregon high school.

With rising tuition, higher fees and increased cost of living, Gov. John Kitzhaber told the Senate Committee on Education and Workforce Development on Tuesday, too few Oregon students see post-secondary education as a realistic opportunity.

The committee passed Senate Bill 1524 to the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon. The measure would allow for a study on the viability of waiving tuition and fees for Oregon high school graduates. If the measure passes both chambers, the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission would be charged with studying the idea and to report back to the Legislature later this year.

“If we get this right, we can unleash a tremendous amount of motivation in these young people,” Kitzhaber said, adding that it could make the difference in terms of economic success for Oregon students.

Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, who chairs the committee, is one of the key proponents behind the measure.

“There is no longer a path from high school to middle class without some sort of technical training or higher education,” Hass said.

Hass told the committee the average cost for a community college student per year is a bit more than $7,000. He estimated that if every high school student who was eligible took advantage of the program, it would cost the state $100 million to $200 million every two-year budget cycle.

“Two years of tuition at college is much cheaper than a lifetime of food stamps,” he said.

Duncan Wyse, president of the Oregon Business Council and a member of the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, said if the state is serious about meeting the so-called 40-40-20 goals, this is a good step. The 40-40-20 goals were passed by the 2011 Legislature, stating that by 2025, 40 percent of Oregon students will have a bachelor’s degree or higher, 40 percent will have an associate degree and 20 percent will have the equivalent of a high school diploma.

“If you achieve an Oregon diploma, we ought to be able to say to every student in Oregon, ‘You will be able to go on and earn an advanced degree,’” Wyse said.

But the governor warned lawmakers that although he thinks it’s a good idea, it’s not without “complexities or potential pitfalls.”

He outlined several “guiding principles,” including ensuring it wouldn’t be a “blank check” and ways to ensure the program is efficient and working.

Sen. Arnie Roblan, D- Coos Bay, who sits on the committee and is a former high school principal, said his district experimented with a similar idea and found it more effective when the students weren’t given the money up front, but rather were reimbursed when they turned in a passing grade.

Hass said he keeps thinking of how student debt in the nation has topped a trillion dollars.

“It’s mind boggling that of all the families who owe money on their credit cards, students owe more than that,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-554-1162, ldake@bendbulletin.com