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Free community college? Well, not really

Democratic legislators are cheering last-minute passage Monday, July 6, of the Oregon Promise Act, leading to headlines around the world declaring community college is now free in Oregon.

As usual, the devil is in the details.

“The overwhelming majority of our students are not actually eligible for this program,” says Portland Community College Government Relations Director Meghan Moyer. Moyer says that while the college is pleased with the $10 million in new grant funds, the many restrictions mean that most of its students, who are age 29 on average, won’t qualify. “So it’s not free community college like President (Barack) Obama’s proposal (in his February State of the Union speech) was.”

(On the national scene, a group of Democratic senators and representatives introduced America’s College Promise Act on Wednesday, July 8, calling for a match of $3 in federal grants to every $1 state grants, allowing a tuition waiver.)

According to the PCC Institutional Effectiveness Office, PCC sees about 2,250 Oregon resident recent high school graduates, out of about 90,000 full- and part-time students. Data for recent GED completers were not available. A full-time student could expect to pay about $3,766 plus fees for annual tuition.

The new Oregon Promise grants will offer a minimum of $1,000 to students who: contribute $50 in tuition; have obtained a high school diploma or equivalent in the last six months; have lived in Oregon for the last 12 months; who maintain a 2.5 grade point average in classes related to their degree; and who have already applied for Federal Student Aid.

That last requirement has already proved a hurdle to some. Sen. Mark Hass, who sponsored the bill, told Willamette Week that the Oregon Promise grants were designed as a sort of carrot to encourage qualified students to apply for federal money.

Recent research by the College Board, however, shows that fewer than 60 percent of community college students actually apply for federal aid because the application process is too complex for them and their families.

“Aid programs that are easy to understand and to apply for are more effective than the same dollars devoted to more complex, less predictable programs,” wrote College Board researchers in a 2012 study.

Moyer says she also worries that students will think that the Oregon Promise grants are automatic when they apply to PCC.

“PCC will not actually be administering this funding,” she says.

A recent high school graduate will now need to fill out the standard Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), then apply for this new grant through the Oregon Office of Student Access and Completion (which also manages Oregon Opportunity Grants) and also apply to their community college.

The Higher Education Coordinating Commission, a part of the Oregon Education Investment Board, will decide on rules for the program that will start in the 2016-17 academic year.

Moyer says PCC hopes, and will advocate for, the commission to write rules that direct the money to traditionally underserved populations first.

“I am concerned about people having the perception that we now have free community college, because $10 million is only going to serve a limited number of students,” she says. “$10 million is not enough to create community college for every recent high school graduate. There’s going to have to be some prioritization.”


kfuller@hillsborotribune.com
On Twitter: @ReporterFuller

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