SALEM — Oregon lawmakers are back with a new idea to make college more affordable, after earning national attention with last year’s proposal to allow free university tuition that would be repaid with graduates’ future earnings.
A Senate panel on Tuesday backed a measure ordering the state to study whether it’s realistic to allow Oregon high school graduates to attend community colleges for free.
“If we get this right, I think we can unleash a tremendous amount of motivation within these young people, giving them the motivation to stay in school, to get a certificate, to achieve that additional learning that can make a difference in terms of their economic success,” Gov. John Kitzhaber told the Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee.
Senate Bill 1524 would order the Higher Education Coordinating Commission to study whether the idea is viable and report back by September. Lawmakers would use the findings to decide whether to pursue the idea during next year’s legislative session.
Kitzhaber said the study must look at whether the concept is sustainable in the long term, can be applied equitably to all Oregonians, and will achieve the desired impact.
Rough estimates indicate the proposal would cost the state about $100 million to $200 million per two-year budget cycle if every Oregon high school graduate took advantage of it, said Sen. Mark Hass, a Beaverton Democrat who chairs the committee. Some would still go to four-year universities and others would finish their education after high school, Hass said.
“I think we all recognize that there is no longer a path from high school to the middle class” without some sort of post-high school education, Hass said, yet the growing burden of student loans is crippling families.
Sen. Arnie Roblan, a Coos Bay Democrat and former high school principal, said it’s important to devise the program in a way that encourages students to apply themselves and succeed. When his school looked at subsidizing tuition for community college classes taught at the high school, he said, administrators found some students took the classes more seriously if they had to pay up front and receive a reimbursement.
Lawmakers last year voted to study a different financing model dubbed “pay forward, pay back.” Students would attend four-year universities for free, then repay the state with a portion of their future earnings. The higher education commission is researching the idea. If it decides a pilot project at one or more universities is warranted, it will recommend one to the Legislature next year.