Tuition: Impossible

A program to offer free community college doesn't have everyone cheering.

Oregon's high school graduates recently got a huge gift, courtesy of state lawmakers: free college.

That's the pitch to more than 10,000 prospective community college students. The last-minute bill passed by the Legislature on July 3 would make Oregon the second state in the country, following Tennessee, to cover two years of community college tuition.

"This is a step in the right direction," says Ashley Jackson, vice president of the Associated Students of Lane Community College. "We are really excited about what this will inspire the youth in high school to aspire to."

Sen. Mark Hass (D-Beaverton), the measure's primary sponsor, says the program will help more students get the skills they need for well-paying jobs.

"We need to throw a life raft to these kids coming straight out of high school," Hass says. "This is a great value for Oregon and the best thing we can do."

But here's who's not excited: the community colleges themselves. 

Andrea Henderson is executive director of the Oregon Community College Association, which lobbies for the state's 17 two-year schools. Henderson says she appreciates that Hass and other lawmakers are trying to help cut the cost of college for thousands of Oregon students.

But she says the program, while enticing, could be making a promise that the state can't keep. She fears community colleges could face a flood of new students without enough money to keep up with demand.

"In the future, that could be a huge concern for us," Henderson says. "It's not enough to get these students in the door. We have to help them complete. This program won't really help them complete."

The program, called the Oregon Promise, encourages low-income students who might think college is out of reach to take full advantage of federal grants, aid and scholarships that already exist. If they do, the state will step in and fill in the tuition gap not covered by federal money.

"There is already financial aid for low-income people, but they aren't showing up," says Sara Goldrick-Rab, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin, who worked on the bill. "This is dangling a carrot."

To be eligible for free tuition, students must have lived in Oregon for at least 12 months, begin community college within six months of earning a high school diploma or GED, take courses required for college completion, and maintain at least a 2.5 grade-point average.

The average annual community college tuition for a full time student is $4,640 a year. The new program, which starts with the 2016-17 school year, will spend $10 million to cover tuition—but it won't cover textbooks, housing and student fees, which colleges could use to leverage more money from students who think their costs are largely covered.

"It's going to provide access for more students," says José Padín, a Portland State University sociology professor and president of the American Association of University Professors' Oregon chapter. "It's not going to be free community college, and it's not going to be universal."

Community college officials worry the program will create expectations the colleges themselves can't fulfill. Today, state and local taxpayers pick up about half the costs of community colleges.

"A spike in attendance with just the tuition side of the equation covered—and no corresponding increase in the other half of funding—will stretch capacity and threaten to erode programs," Greg Hamann, president of Linn Benton Community College, warned in testimony before legislators in May. (Hamann declined to comment for this story.)

Others worry that a big increase in students encouraged by the free-tuition promise would not necessarily lead to higher graduation rates.

“I think that it’s very clear that colleges need help in serving the students they already enroll,” says Ben Cannon, executive director of the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission. 

Cannon notes the ratios of students to teachers and counselors are already high. "I'll be on the lookout for increasing enrollment in community colleges without the increasing success of the students," he says.

Hass dismisses the concern, saying community colleges already struggle to get students to graduate. (A recent Audits Division report says the state's community colleges graduate 24 percent of students, compared to the 30 percent national average.) "Community colleges already don't have a great record," Hass says. His tuition bill, he says, is paired with $7 million college preparedness programs to increase graduation rates.

Hass concedes Senate Bill 81 only addresses some college-funding needs, but he said the measure is the best deal lawmakers could put together this year.

"There is a graveyard right outside the state Senate where perfect bills go to die," Hass says. "I would have liked to make this 10 times more expensive to include everything that students need to get through community college, but that wasn't realistic. You do what you can do."

Courtney Wilton has watched Oregon college funding as a Clackamas Community College administrator and Portland Community College board member. He says Hass hasn't solved the tuition riddle—but he's helped.

“People shouldn’t think that their financial troubles are over,” Wilton says. “But this is not a bad thing. This is 10 million bucks.”  

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW’s journalism through our Give!Guide Fundraising page.