In June 2015, Oregon followed in the footsteps of Tennessee and became the second state to guarantee free community college to all qualified high-school graduates and GED completers. The program is currently being developed for implementation in the 2016 – 2017 school year and is expected to help approximately 4,000-6,000 students attend college in the first year.
The bill’s passage was aided by a chance encounter between its sponsor, State Senator Mark Hass and President Obama. As Senator Hass told our Pacific Northwest Summit on College Affordability, the President asked him during a photo op what he was working on and found himself being questioned intently by President Obama on the bill’s prospects. Unwilling to tell the President he was having trouble garnering support for the legislation, he indicated that he might need the President’s help at some point. Then he went back and told his colleagues that the President was interested in the bill and so they had to pass it. Which they did a few months later, with the help of some key phone calls from the President of the United States to legislators who were on the fence.
The Oregon Promise is available to all recent Oregon high school graduates and those who completed their GED based on a concise set of qualifications. The program provides funding up to the state community colleges’ average tuition for full-time enrollment. Students attending community colleges above the state average are responsible for paying the difference between the average tuition cost and the cost at the school where they are enrolled.
Participants must be residents of Oregon for at least a year, have maintained a cumulative high school GPA of or above 2.5, enroll in an Oregon community or technical college within 6 months of high school graduation or GED completion, aim to transfer or complete a degree or certificate, and complete their FAFSA. Furthermore, in an effort to incentivize student success, in order to remain eligible participants must maintain a cumulative GPA of or above 2.5, make satisfactory academic progress, complete a FAFSA each year, and be enrolled at least half time for three semesters each academic year. Finally, all students are asked to make a $50 per term co-payment to demonstrate their personal commitment to college. The Promise has a $10 million annual spending cap. If funds are not available to cover all students, the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission can establish the priority by which grants are awarded.
While some may see these qualifications as being unnecessarily restrictive, the Oregon promise is a very generous middle-dollar scholarship as it provides a minimum benefit of $1,000. For low income students who have tuition covered by federal and state grants, the scholarship will help cover the cost of college outside of tuition including books, transportation, food, and housing.
This bill is expected to help thousands of students receive their associates degree or technical certificate without incurring significant debt, helping create a workforce that is ready for the challenges of tomorrow. Furthermore, it is expected to also benefit students aiming for a four-year degree by helping them cut the price of college in half. In a nutshell, the Promise will help incentivize many low-income and middle-class students to attend college, who might have seen a college education as outside their financial reach without this Promise.
Free community college is an important first step in providing opportunity for young people of all backgrounds and creating a skilled workforce that is ready to tackle the new economy. Oregon is only the second state to make take this step but policy makers across many more states are recognizing the potential of free community college. We expect many more state governments to follow the example set by both Oregon and Tennessee.
We can and should make college tuition free at all public two-year and four-year colleges and universities in order to provide opportunity to all those who are willing to work for it and truly be ready to tackle the challenges of tomorrow.
Our goal is to make higher education a possibility for every American, without regard to their financial circumstances.
We have a lot to do and not much time to do it, so your support is critical for our campaign to succeed. It’s with your investment that we can fundamentally reform how higher education is financed in this country, opening the doors to a more equitable society.
If you agree with our goal, our plan, and the urgency of the problem, we ask that you give what you can to help us write the next chapter in our nation’s history of continuously expanding access to universal, free education.