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New law gives recent high school grads chance to continue education

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.It will be another month before fall classes open on Portland Community College’s Rock Creek campus, but when they do, several new faces will be in the mix thanks to a new Oregon program that offers free community college to select students.

Last year, legislators passed the Oregon Promise Act, a new law that offers recently-graduated high school students and GED graduates tuition money to continue their educations.

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

Recent high school grads 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 community 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.”

One student headed to PCC this fall is 18-year-old Mikaela Fields, of Banks. Fields is the first in her family to attend college, she said. Her mother did not graduate from high school.

“This is pretty big for me,” she said. “I’m hoping I do good.”

Fields had no intention of going to college after she graduated from Banks High School earlier this year 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 program from a school counselor, Fields said she had to apply.

“This is a big opportunity for me,” she said. “I’m not going to blow it.”

Fields isn’t alone. Edwards said Portland Community College could see as many as 2,700 Promise students at the school this fall. As many as half of those are expected to attend classes at the Rock Creek campus, Edwards said.

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

A boost for enrollment?

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. We won’t know.”

Tiana Rudolf, a recent graduate of Forest Grove High School, and 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.”

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

Hass toured the Rock Creek campus earlier this month and said that the program is meant to give students the chance to go to college debt-free.

“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,” Hass said. “There are plenty of jobs in Oregon. The problem is our youth must currently take on crippling debt in order to fill these positions.”

Because the program is geared toward recent high school graduates, many of PCC’s students aren’t eligible for the program, but 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.”

The first day of classes at PCC Rock Creek is Sept. 26.

By Geoff Pursinger
Associate Editor, Hillsboro Tribune
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