By Taylor W. Anderson

The Bulletin

Bill in Salem — Senate Bill 81 would waive course fees for certain students at Oregon’s community colleges.

History: Tennessee was the first state to enact a free community college program. Students there must apply for federal aid in order to apply for the tuition waiver, and proponents of free community college in Oregon say the program has led to an influx of federal aid to Tennessee that they expect would happen here too.

What’s next: Public hearing scheduled Tuesday.

Online: Read the bill here

SALEM — Lawmakers hoping to make community college free for most students got a resounding message from the higher education community during a hearing on the matter Thursday: The proposal isn’t ready for prime time.

Senate Bill 81 was proposed as a way to create a free college degree for low- and middle-income students. The cost to the state is estimated at around $20 million every two years, and aspects of the proposed law could bring in a rush of federal student aid to help carry the program.

But representatives from community colleges and Oregon’s university system said the bipartisan group of legislators proposing the bill still isn’t taking into account the cost of an unexpected rush of students hopeful to take advantage of the free program.

“It’s not that we wouldn’t want them; it’s just that we want to make sure that they complete” their education, said Debbie Koreski, a lobbyist from Portland State University, who said an influx of community college students would then transfer to universities that couldn’t handle the need without much more money.

Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, has been leading the proposal since 2013. He said critics aren’t considering the likely gush of federal money that would come as a result of the proposal, which requires recipients to apply for federal aid.

Hass told a joint budget committee hearing on the bill that critics from the higher education community have resisted major changes to Oregon’s college system since 2011, when the Higher Education Coordinating Commission was created.

He likens the pushback to the free community college plan to initial resistance when the G.I. Bill, which gave veterans money for education, was created in 1944. But he said the proposal is needed to build a workforce in a post-lumber economy.

“We have a growing population of young people in Oregon, about 70,000 of them … between 18-24 that are categorized as idle youth,” Hass said. “They’re not bad people. They’re not criminals. But until they get an opportunity, they are likely to go down the path toward poverty.

“They used to go to lumber mills and now the mills are gone,” Hass said in an interview.

If the Legislature passes Senate Bill 81, students who want to take advantage of free tuition would be required to fill out the federal form known as FAFSA that determines the student’s eligibility for federal grants and financial aid, which they otherwise wouldn’t get.

Students eligible for free tuition under the program would have to chip in $50. Colleges would then subtract state and federal grants before waiving tuition for eligible students. Students would have to be Oregon residents for a year before becoming eligible and recipients must maintain a 2.5 GPA.

Oregon would be the second state, behind Tennessee, to set up a free community college program. Tennessee’s first semester under the free program is this fall, so Oregon lawmakers can’t definitively say what impact free college would have on the entire system. Oregon’s program would take effect during the 2017-18 school year.

Rep. Mark Johnson, R-Hood River, also supports the idea behind the bill, calling it a necessary step to help more students earn degrees.

“Everybody should have an opportunity to do that because as we all know and we totally understand our economy requires it now,” Johnson said.

Greg Hamann, president of Linn Benton Community College, laid out four issues the state’s 17 community colleges have with the measure.

The colleges worry if more students enter community college and have tuition waived — which accounts for about half the colleges’ budgets — the free tuition would deplete a budget that is still crawling back after being cut deeply during the recession.

Hamann also said that to make sure community colleges can help students actually complete their associate degrees, they’ll need more money for counseling and other support services.

He also said half the students who attend community colleges plan to transfer to a four-year university, and that the Legislature should also focus on helping the university system carry the stress more transfer students would put on the system.

Matt McCoy, vice president for administration at Central Oregon Community College, echoed Hamann’s concerns. He said if “we were to see a spike in enrollment, there’s still a large percentage of costs that go unfunded by the state.”

It’s not clear whether the proposal has enough momentum to pass this session. The budget committee will hear the bill again Tuesday.

— Reporter: 406-589-4347,