Current Iteration of Oregon Promise Leaves Out Adults and CompletionAndrea Henderson | Executive Director of Arkansas Community Colleges Association
Affordability is a hot button issue in postsecondary education at the moment, and for good reason. The typical student graduates from college with an average of about $30,000 in debt. President Obama led the call for free community college tuition when in his State of the Union address, he said, “we still live in a country where too many bright, striving Americans are priced out of the education they need. It’s not fair to them, and it’s sure not smart for our future.”
Last month, Oregon became the second state to launch a “promise” program for community college students. The Oregon legislature—with the passage of Senate Bill (SB) 81—funded a $10-million “Oregon Promise” for future high school graduates who have a 2.5 GPA and for GED completers; students must enroll in community college within six months of receiving their high school diploma or GED. It differs significantly from the Obama proposal in that it is a last-dollar program, meaning that students first apply all federal and state financial aid and if there is any tuition still owing, the “Oregon Promise” will pay the difference up to the average cost of tuition. However, eligible students are guaranteed a minimum award of $1000. Proponents argue that the program will encourage high school students to file their FAFSA, thus having the federal government pay for most of the cost for the “free” tuition through the Pell Grant.
The program starts fall of 2016, and with all the media attention, a landslide of students are asking about free community college tuition. Most community college students, however, will not benefit from the program as it is only for pipeline students moving from high school or GED completion directly into the community college. This is to say that this program will not help the nearly 200,000 adults in Oregon attending community college. Further, the Oregon legislature only appropriated $10 million for the program, which will merely serve 4000-6000 students who either graduate or receive their GED in spring of 2016—yet nearly 30,000 students are projected to graduate.
Unless the legislature fully funds the program in the next session, the Higher Education Coordinating Commission (HECC), who is charged with administering the program, will need to make difficult policy decisions on how to ration limited resources. While early drafts of the legislation had proposed a “first-come, first-served” program, which may have benefited more middle income students who file FAFSAs early, the final version explicitly allowed HECC to target the program to specific high schools or school districts. This opens the door for graduates from specific low-income or underrepresented schools directing the limited resources to students who otherwise may not go to college.
However, the creation of this program raises an even bigger question. Given limited dollars, how should states best invest in community colleges? A recent audit of community colleges by the Oregon Secretary of State showed that only 55 percent of community college students complete a certificate, an associate degree, or transfer to a four-year school. What happens to the other 45 percent of students? How many of them have stopped out without a degree or credential along with increased debt? Perhaps the focus should be to ensure that students who enroll also complete their program.
As Oregon works to implement the “Oregon Promise” this may create a rare opportunity to craft a program that combines both the need for access and affordability with student success and completion. With one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country in Oregon, the program might encourage high school students to graduate, and do so on time. By adding needed advising and student success strategies, Oregon can create guided pathways that help students complete their degree or transfer.
Oregon is up to the challenge.