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Free Community College, Anyone?

An Oregon bill promises free community college tuition but targets only middle-class students, overlooking the other half of the costs.

Oregon's promise to its students must begin with a frank diagnosis of their needs and a clear path to making college an attainable goal. SB 81 fails that test. (Photo: College Student via Shutterstock)

This is the question Senator Mark Hass and his compatriots, Representatives Mark Johnson and Tobias Read, have posed in a bill currently before the Oregon Legislature.

Inspired by Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam’s year-old “Tennessee Promise,” SB 81 grants students a community college tuition waiver if they meet its several requirements. These include attainment of a high school diploma or a GED within two years of applying for this program, as well as seeking a federal Pell grant. The Oregon Promise would cover the remainder of tuition due after federal resources are applied. Students would pay a nominal $50 fee each term.

Tuition-free community college made its first appearance as a proposal last session in SB 1524. That bill became an interim study by the Higher Education Coordinating Commission. Given Oregon’s 40-40-20 goal (100 percent high school graduation, 40 percent associate’s degree attainment, and the remaining 40 percent of Oregonians earning a four-year degree or higher by the year 2025), the study explored this concept as a way to raise the state’s college-degree attainment.

At first glance, the need to improve college affordability and accessibility makes the idea attractive. As one of the many opponents of SB 81 has noted, however, the structure of the bill is fraught with problems that would yield unintended consequences to the very students its sponsors hope to help.

One of the shortcomings of the bill is that it excludes nontraditional and returning adult students, who most benefit from the unique mission of the community college system.

A second problem is that the program would not cover non-tuition educational expenses such as textbooks, school supplies and housing, which account for 50 percent of total costs. SB 81 does not cap the growth of these other expenses, and without tuition revenues, Oregon’s underfunded community colleges would likely be forced to increase this side of the ledger to accommodate “tuition-free” students.

These financial barriers would discourage low-income students from pursuing degrees. In fact, Sen. Hass has acknowledged that his proposal would primarily benefit middle-class students. “I make no apology for that,” he told the Education Subcommittee of Ways and Means last week.

Compounding these issues is the bill’s impact on enrollment in four-year colleges, which would not be able to offer the same “deal” to its freshmen and sophomores. Because research has demonstrated that only 30 percent of community college students transfer to four-year colleges, this is not just an institutional competition question; it is one that erects a barrier to attainment of the first “40” in the state’s completion goals.

According to a recent state audit report, fewer than a quarter of students who attended community college within the past seven years completed a degree or certificate. As students, faculty, administrators and advocates have all told the legislators, SB 81 does nothing to address the causes of this phenomenon – which include needs for child care, transportation, financial resources beyond tuition and other supports.

It is inarguable that the state’s commitment to raise degree attainment must be measured by the investments it is willing to make in higher education. So far, the legislature has fallen short of the base budget needs of its community colleges and four-year institutions. Adding more students to an underfunded system is an unsustainable formula.

Finally, as Oregon moves forward in its ambitious goal to send more students to college, it must be said: Degree attainment should not be the only reason to go. Missing from this conversation is the value of a college experience to students’ social, cultural and intellectual development and to the enrichment of the community at large.

Oregon’s promise to its students must begin with a frank diagnosis of their needs and a clear path to making college an attainable goal. SB 81 fails that test.

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