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Oregon has a problem with higher education

When it comes to higher education, Oregon has a problem.

When the Oregon Education Investment Board launched the 40-40-20 plan, it was ambitious, to say the least. It aimed for 40 percent of Oregonians to have a baccalaureate degree (or higher), 40 percent to have an associate’s degree or certification in a skilled occupation, and the remaining 20 percent to have at least a high school diploma or equivalent — all by 2025.

Since its launch, we’ve seen Oregon high school graduation rates drop to the lowest level in the nation. That’s dead last in the United States.

Once students do graduate from high school (or earn equivalent certification), then they face high tuition rates for college. In-state tuition and fees for Oregon State University and the University of Oregon are approaching $10,000 per year. When you add on housing and other expenses, higher education becomes something that only a select few can afford — without taking on a crushing amount of student debt.

In 2013, Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler proposed a program called the Student Opportunity Initiative that was intended to make a college education more affordable for Oregonians. Unfortunately, voters rejected the associated 2014 ballot measure that would have created an endowment fund for aid to students in any form of post-secondary education.

While Wheeler envisioned that bond sales would raise money for the fund, direct state appropriations and private donations also could be used. Only the investment earnings would be distributed as aid, which would be repaid by students.

Now, the 2015 Legislature has passed the Oregon Promise Act, which has been ballyhooed as free community college in the Beaver State.

Not exactly.

As promising as the act sounds, it has several significant shortcomings.

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 past six months; have lived in Oregon for the past 12 months; who maintain a 2.5 grade-point average in classes related to their degree; and who already have applied for federal student aid.

While we’re certain this aid will be welcomed by thousands of prospective students (up to the two-year $10 million cap), it simply doesn’t go far enough.

Limiting the aid to recent high school graduates automatically excludes the thousands of students who are returning to school — the students who overwhelmingly make up the community college population.

At Portland Community College, of the approximately 90,000 full- and part-time students, only 2,250 would qualify for this program — plus the number of recent GED recipients.

If students choose to work for a year after high school or serve in the military, they would automatically be excluded from participating in the program.

In addition to providing financial aid for community college, state Sen. Mark Hass (D-Beaverton) said the program was intended to encourage students to apply for federal aid. While that may sound noble, the reality is that many students, according to research by College Board, simply don’t apply for federal aid because the process is too cumbersome for them and their families.

“This is not intended to reach all students,” said state Rep. Mark Johnson (R-Hood River), the bill’s floor manager in the House. “But the status quo is clearly not working.”

Johnson is correct on both counts. The status quo is not working in Oregon, and this is not going to fix the education problem. Providing this aid will only benefit a select few students and will do nothing to address Oregon’s woeful high school graduation rate.

While credit should be given to Hass for shepherding this bill through, the reality is that it simply doesn’t do enough.

If Oregon and Oregon students are going to be competitive in the economy of the future, the state must find a way to improve high school graduation rates; increase student aid for everyone; and embrace the idea put forth in the 40-40-20 plan that college may not be the path for every student.