Oregon Will Become Second State to Offer Free Community College

Lawmakers approve new program in last minute pre-holiday vote

More than 10,000 students are expected to benefit from a last-minute bill passed by legislators this week that makes Oregon only the second state (after Tennessee) to offer free community college.

The idea, according to state Sen. Mark Hass (D-Beaverton), is that a lot of needy students who might like to attend community college are currently failing to apply for federal grants that could pay for much of their education.

The new legislation, Senate Bill 81, offers a carrot: If eligible students apply for and receive federal grants for community college, Oregon will pay the balance of their tuition. The recipients must have lived in Oregon for 12 months, begin their community college course work within six months of finishing high school or the equivalent, take courses that are required for graduation and maintain a 2.5 grade point average. (And it's not entirely free—each student must pay a minimum of $50 per term.)

In legislative testimony, Hass cited state estimates that it costs about $14,000 a year in social services and indirect costs to support each of the 70,000 Oregonians between the ages of 18 and 24 who are unemployed and have no education beyond high school.

"A lifetime of food stamps is much more expensive than the annual community college tuition of $3,000," Hass told lawmakers on May 28.

In Tennessee, more than 80 percent of the students that took part last year in that state's new program got full or partial grant (not loan) funding from federal Pell grants. The state then paid the balance.

If Gov. Kate Brown signs the bill, Oregon will begin its program in 2016, with expenditures capped at $10 million per year. Hass says that, because the program is new, no one is quite sure how many students will take advantage of it. Legislative estimates put the number at between 10,000 and 12,000.

The Senate approved the bill last Thursday. The House then OK'd it late Friday, with 14 of the chamber's 25 GOP members voting for it, led by Rep. Mark Johnson (R-Hood River), who worked closely with Hass on the bill.

Hass says a bipartisan approval for a new program that costs money is a sign of how Oregon's economy has changed. A generation ago, there were jobs in forests and mills that are now gone forever.

"People in timber country supported this bill," Hass says. "It wasn't contentious."

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