Lakeridge High School Class of 2017 graduate Nic Fernandez says that not everyone in his life approved when he said he planned to earn a degree in music, but he received full support when he told them he'd be saving money by attending a two-year college.
Regardless of any criticism about his major, Fernandez is chasing his dream. He's a singer-songwriter who plays guitar, bass and piano, and he has taken lessons in working a sound board for 10 years. He says he plans to leverage his associate degree in music technology at Portland Community College to edge out the competition when it comes to finding work in the music industry, whether as a performer or behind the scenes.
Fernandez believes he's playing it smart by not drowning in an ocean of college loans at a more-expensive four-year school. He adds that a four-year school can be especially dollar-devouring for students who need more than four years to find the right major.
"One of the great benefits of going to a two-year institution is that the cost is much less," he says, "and it's much more cost-effective for someone who's not ready to jump into a four-year institution."
Fernandez is one of 571 students who graduated this June with a diploma from a well-regarded secondary school in the Lake Oswego School District. Lakeridge and Lake Oswego high schools both have reputations as college-prep institutions. Both usually are counted among the best in Oregon and the nation on various lists, including U.S. News & World Report's Best High Schools ranking.
And almost all LOSD graduates do go on to college after high school. Generally, most Laker and Pacer grads — 68 to 82 percent from either high school in the past five years — have enrolled in a four-year university.
But depending on the year and the school, between 10 and 22 percent of the remaining LOSD graduates have discovered opportunities at two-year schools, and state legislation that passed this spring could increase those numbers in the future.
Bills approved by Oregon lawmakers include improvements to the way students can transfer college credit from community colleges to public universities, as well as an investment in programs that offer college-level coursework for high-schoolers. The state has also invested in a program called Oregon Promise, which pays most of the tuition for qualifying students at in-state two-year schools.
The number of LOSD students heading to community colleges spiked in 2016, the year that Oregon Promise was introduced. Last year, 18 percent of graduates at each local high school headed to a two-year college — the most at Lakeridge since 2013 and more than in any graduating class at LOHS in the past five years.
Meanwhile, Lake Oswego School Board member Liz Hartman says the district educates parents and students about the cost of higher education and the options that community college provides.
"I learned from one student that she planned to attend community college and then apply to an Ivy League school because she wanted to save money in those two years at home," Hartman says. "Students, as much as parents, can take a greater role in their education when they have information, and our district has been great at getting information out in the past few years."
A promise of options
A recent change could affect the number of students who will be able to access Oregon Promise. State lawmakers approved $8 million less than expected for the program in 2017-19, so requirements based on a family's financial situation have been toughened. That will make the program harder to qualify for, according to the website for the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, a state agency that fosters access to higher education.
But at the same time, other recently approved measures could entice high schoolers to pursue a post-secondary education and make community colleges more appealing.
In its just-completed 2017 session, the Legislature allocated $170 million to implement Measure 98, according to the Oregon Department of Education website. The funding will buoy high schools with career and technical programs, college-level educational opportunities and the expansion of drop-out prevention strategies. The LOSD will receive $2 million in funding during the next two years through Measure 98, said Michael Musick, assistant superintendent of school management. How will the funds be spent?
"We are formulating the plan now," Musick explained.
Another bill streamlined the process for students to transfer credits between community colleges and public universities, establishing a "foundational curriculum" in students' first year at a community college and requiring that academic credit from that curriculum be transferable to any of the state's seven public universities.
Hartman says that addresses a problem she's been hearing about for some time from families.
"I think the greatest hurdle in Oregon … has been the less-than-seamless ability to transfer credits earned in community college to the state colleges," Hartman explains. "That's probably the complaint I've heard the most from parents."
She says the district has always worked hard to offer college-level learning in high school and to provide students with as much information as possible about the options that await them.
"I'm proud that our district has continued to develop and grow knowledge about local educational resources like the community college system," Hartman says, adding that high school counselors and parent clubs have played an important role in that process.
In addition, other members of the School Board have expressed an interest in supporting students who want to pursue a two-year education. That includes board member Rob Wagner, who works as Portland Community College's associate vice president of college advancement. Wagner says that while he only just joined the School Board in May, he's eager to help where he can in building on any existing dual-credit opportunities.
"I think there's a lot of innovative things that are happening," Wagner says.
What LOSD offers
One option that's already available at LOSD schools is dual credit, which allows students to take higher-level classes to receive high school and college credit at the same time. Examples include Advanced Placement Calculus A.B. (Math 251 in college) and A.P. Calculus B.C. (Math 252), as well as Journalism (J 103) through PCC and Automotive Fundamentals (AM 100), General Auto Repair (AM 121) and more at Clackamas Community College.
The automotive classes, through a partnership with World of Speed Motorsports Museum, were just added in the 2016-17 year. Musick said the district offers 53 dual-credit or AP courses in its curriculum and that staff intends to study how to improve or add to these opportunities.
There's also a class eligible for dual credit through Portland State University — A.P. History: Issues & Research, according to the Lakeridge High curriculum guide. (If a class is not available at one high school, students are often allowed to take it at the other school.)
There's typically a cost involved, but dual credit is available at no charge to students who meet the Oregon Department of Education's definitions of "at risk" or "otherwise qualified." Students must be 16 or older and in grades 11 or 12. The option is also available to students who have officially dropped out of high school but would re-enroll in order to participate in the dual-credit program.
Fernandez's case was a little bit different. He needed so few credits to complete his senior year at Lakeridge — just English and physical education — that he wasn't able to participate in an official dual-credit program at PCC. He didn't want to graduate early, though, so Lakeridge Principal Jennifer Schiele helped him work out a schedule that allowed him to attend community college and still be a Pacer for one more year.
Now, he lives in his own place and is already going into his sophomore year at PCC this fall. He's also worked for more than a year at the Starbucks on McVey Avenue, a job that provides him with health insurance and a 401K plan.
"Everyone at Lakeridge was really supportive, and I really appreciate that," he says. "I love PCC too. It's a great school."
Even if a student is not taking dual-credit classes, School Board member Bob Barman says community colleges and other public universities offer plenty of opportunities to save on tuition. His own twin sons took classes at Portland State University before heading off to the University of California, Los Angeles, where they paid out-of-state tuition.
Local community colleges and public universities "have so many opportunities, and they have so many rigorous courses," Barman says. "Don't even get me started on the incredible benefit these schools offer all of our citizens, especially our students. It's endless if you embrace it."
Barman says the price of a community college education is especially appealing. At PCC, for example, it costs $104 per credit, while one credit is $211 at the University of Oregon and $295 at Oregon State — and that's not counting fees, books, housing and transportation. Costs can even vary based on a university's campus location.
Of course, the cost of attending prestigious out-of-state schools is even higher. At Harvard, for example, undergraduate tuition and fees total $48,949. Divide that by 12 credits times three terms and the costs falls somewhere in the range of $1,359 per credit (including fees).
Maybe that's why about one-third of the graduating class at each local high school opted to stay close to home in 2017. More than 31 percent of the 292 graduates at LOHS chose to attend Oregon State University or the University of Oregon, according to LOSD data, as did 29 percent of the 279 graduates at Lakeridge.
Hartman says college attendance numbers fluctuate each year, based on the individual students and the dreams — such as Fernandez's desire to be a professional musician — that they hope to fulfill.
"Numbers can be interpreted in so many ways," she says, "and every graduating class is different in what they value, what information is presented to them and who presents it."
Ultimately, Hartman says, some students may make their college decision based on the subject they'd like to study. Others may need additional time to save money while they live at home. Or maybe, she says, they "just may have more awareness about the quality of the programs that community colleges offer."
BY THE NUMBERS
• 2013 — 287 grads: 82 percent at four-year school, 10 percent at two-year school
• 2014 — 304 grads: 79 percent at four-year school, 12 percent at two-year school
• 2015 — 287 grads: 77 percent at four-year school, 15 percent at two-year school
• 2016 —316 grads: 75 percent at four-year school, 18 percent at two-year school
• 2017 — 292 grads: 79 percent at four-year school, 12 percent at two-year school
• 2013 — 274 grads: 68 percent at four-year school, 22 percent at two-year school
• 2014 — 289 grads: 73 percent at four-year school, 17 percent at two-year school
• 2015 — 240 grads: 73 percent at four-year school, 17 percent at two-year school
• 2016 — 290 grads: 75 percent at four-year school, 18 percent at two-year school
• 2017 — 279 grads: 75 percent at four-year school, 15 percent at two-year school