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Two months left to apply for free community college

Applications pour in after Nov. 1 debut of Oregon Promise

More than 5,000 Oregonians have applied for free community college since the state debuted the Oregon Promise tuition payment program Nov. 1.

More than 1,100 of those applications came on the first day.

"We are not surprised by, and are very pleased to see, the large number of applicants," said Endi Hartigan, spokeswoman for the Higher Education Coordinating Commission. "We have encouraged students statewide to apply even if they consider it as a backup plan, and have even encouraged high schools to have all seniors apply if they wish."

Lawmakers enacted Oregon Promise in Senate Bill 81 earlier this year. The legislation made Oregon the second state in the nation after Tennessee to offer free community college tuition.

About $10 million was earmarked for the program for an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 recipients in the first year, which starts in fall term 2016. It's unclear whether interest may outpace resources.

"We see, generally, a huge blip at the beginning, and then it goes down and tapers off," said Bob Brew, executive director of the Oregon Office of Student Access and Completion, which helps administer the program.

Eligibility requirements also would help keep the program within budget, he said.

Out of the 7,800 students who began community college in 2015 only 3,400 would have met eligibility requirements, he said.

"We still think $10 million is sufficient," he said.

The program will cost an estimated $40 million in the next biennium, as participation grows and tuition climbs.

Dropouts, those who choose a one-year certificate instead of an associate's degree, and those who go on to a four-year institution will help balance out some of the growth, Brew said.

To qualify, applicants are required to have a GPA of 2.5 or greater, have graduated high school in the last six months, and be an Oregon resident for at least 12 months. They also must enroll in a minimum of six credit hours per term and pursue either a one-year curriculum for transferring to another postsecondary institution, an associate's degree, or career and technical education.

The program pays tuition not covered by other financial aid programs such as the federal Pell Grant or the Oregon Opportunity Grant.