Lawmakers float idea of free community college for high school grads

SALEM, Ore. - In an effort to help students get a college education, lawmakers proposed an initiative Tuesday to make two years of community college free to qualified Oregon high school graduates.

Lawmakers on the interim Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee at the Capitol, and those who testified before it, acknowledged there are still many questions that need to be answered and much work lies ahead to implement such a program.

Gov. John Kitzhaber threw in his support for the idea through his education policy adviser Ben Cannon. The governor was scheduled to testify before the committee but was unable to make it because of the continuing negotiations with leading legislators of both parties in an effort to strike a deal on the so-called "grand bargain" of state public pension reform and taxes.

Chairman Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, said the committee has kicked around the idea of the state paying for community college for a while and worked on the concept all summer. He said initial calculations pointed to a cost to the state of about $250 million to pay for every Oregon student who graduated high school to attend community college full time for two years.

The idea is that "they would be earning a two-year degree, or to become a welder, or a medical assistant, or earning a certificate, or taking core classes through which they could easily transfer to a (four-year school)," he said.

As the concept stands now, a qualifying high school graduate would need to have an accumulative GPA of at least 2.0.

Citing figures from the Oregon Department of Education, Bob Brew, interim executive director of the Oregon Student Access Commission, said that based on state numbers, just over 17,000 students would be eligible for the program each year.

Brew said there would be factors that could lower the cost to the state, including students who have scholarships to other schools, don't live near a community college or choose not to go to college.

"We could also assume that many of the students would qualify for Pell grants, the Oregon Opportunity Grant or other types of financial aid," he said, adding that it is still unknown how many students would take advantage of the program.

However, Brew acknowledged his calculations were based on tuition costs remaining the same and that tuition would actually increase over time. He also said costs could increase because of the need for capital improvements or increased staffing needed to handle more students who may choose to go to community college.

Cannon said the governor was looking at the possibility of legislation for the program being introduced in the 2014 legislative session and enactment in 2015.

"I think for the governor what is particularly exciting and appealing about this idea ... was the idea of the power of a promise to students - a promise of access and affordability," Cannon said. "What is clear is that the combination of the rising tuition fees and cost of living has meant that too few Oregon high school students see post-secondary education as a viable option."

He outlined some principles Kitzhaber wanted the committee to consider before moving forward with the idea. Those included, sustainability of the program, controlling costs and maximizing federal funding.

In addition to the concerns of costs associated with capital improvements and more staff, the issue of students having "skin in the game" was of concern to some lawmakers and it was apparent that it is a concern to the governor as well.

"Free should not imply a blank check from the state," Cannon told lawmakers.

In addressing the "skin in the game" concern, Hass proposed that students contribute a $100 copay a term or through a work study.

There are many questions to be sorted out and Hass acknowledged that by saying "to be continued" before moving on to another committee subject.