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Local grads see lots of Promise at PCC

New law changes Mikaela Fields' plan from auto dealership to college

COURTESY PHOTO - PCC Rock Creek is expecting hundreds of new students this fall thanks to the Oregon Promise Act, which gives recent high school graduates waivers for tuition free community college.When Portland Community College begins classes at its Rock Creek campus Monday, Sept. 26, Mikaela Fields of Banks will become the first person in her family to attend college thanks to free tuition from the Oregon Legislature.

“This is pretty big for me,” said the 18-year-old, whose mother did not even graduate from high school. “I’m hoping to do good.”

Fields had no intention of going to college after she graduated from Banks High School last spring with a 3.25 grade point average.

“I planned to work,” she said. “I’d get a job at an auto dealership and work my way up the ranks.”

But after hearing about the Oregon Promise Act from a school counselor, Fields said she had to apply.

Created last year by Oregon legislators, the new law offers what is being billed as “free community college” to select students who have recently graduated from high school or obtained their GED.

The state has appropriated $10 million for the first year of the program, which launches this fall.

Would-be students are eligible for tuition waivers if they earned at least a 2.5 grade point average, are Oregon residents and apply to community college no more than six months after graduation. They must pay $50 to the college per term and seek federal and state financial aid.

“How can you say no to free money?” said Heidi Edwards, outreach and orientation coordinator at PCC’s Rock Creek campus in Bethany, near Hillsboro. “Nobody wants to take on debt, so a lot of people think they don’t want to go to college,” Edwards said. “They decide to go straight to work or stay with the job they have and don’t go back to school.”

Mikaela Fields isn’t the only one jumping at the chance. Edwards said Portland Community College could see as many as 2,700 Promise students at the school this fall, with possibly half attending classes at Rock Creek.

Washington and Columbia counties had the greatest number of Oregon Promise applicants. Most are bound for PCC’s Rock Creek or Sylvania campuses, Edwards said.

Tiana Rudolf, a recent graduate of Forest Grove High School, is another one of those. Rudolf said she wasn’t looking forward to more schooling, but said the opportunity was too good to pass up.

“I don’t really like school,” she said. “For me to get free college, it pushes me and encourages me to continue my education further. I have no excuse not to go. It motivates me to get an education.”

An influx of Promise students might be just what the doctor ordered for PCC. The Rock Creek campus has seen a 5.7 percent drop in students compared to this time last year.

“The thought is that maybe this will add a bit of an increase to enrollment,” Edwards said. “But we don’t know until students show up.”

The Oregon Promise program was co-founded last year by state Sen. Mark Hass, who represents Beaverton and Aloha.

“The Oregon Promise says that if you keep your grades up and graduate from high school, we promise to provide you with two years of community college without borrowing a dime,” said Hass, who toured the Rock Creek campus earlier this month. “There are plenty of jobs in Oregon. The problem is our youth must currently take on crippling debt in order to fill these positions.”

In addition, Edwards said, the program will help community colleges across the state brush off a decades-long stigma.

“We have been called junior colleges, but we have just as much to offer,” Edwards said. “There is still this myth about what community colleges are. People think that our students aren’t as smart or well prepared as students at four-year colleges, but they are.”

Fields, meanwhile, has a few more weeks before she sets a new family milestone. “This is a big opportunity for me,” she said. “I’m not going to blow it.”