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Free Community College? Here's How That Might Work In Oregon


Many in Oregon likely sat up and listened last month when President Barack Obama announced in his State of the Union address that he would send Congress a plan to lower the cost of community college to zero.

But whether federal help eventually materializes or not, some Oregon lawmakers are pushing to make community college more affordable for everyone in the state.

Anita Magana, a Portland Community College student, said she is happy to hear that help could be on the way.

“I am really enthusiastic about Obama’s drive to really help students, especially helping students decrease the student debt,” Magana said. “I have to rely on scholarships, or just try to scrape by. But then, now, as a parent, money’s quite tight. My husband works three jobs. We have to rely on financial aid to cover my son’s daycare, so I can actually be in school.”

Oregon can’t wait for Obama to get something through Congress, said Mark Hass, chairman of  Oregon’s senate education committee.

“Training is required for medical assistants, welders, car mechanics, just about anyone. So, for a growing and bulging population of young people in this state, that training is just a little bit out of reach, financially,” he said.

Hass has a plan geared toward what he calls Oregon’s “idle youth.”

“There’s about 70,000 people from 16 to 24 in Oregon in that category,” he said. “If we can get that population the opportunity at least to become a medical assistant or a welder, they would have a pathway to the middle class that doesn’t exist today.”

The $20 million in Hass’ plan would be a boon for students at schools like Portland’s Franklin High. Franklin school counselor Alice Headley says some high schoolers get tired of school — and just want to get a job, maybe as a car mechanic.

Headley lays it out this way: “You’re like, ‘It’s just not my thing.’ You go work at Jiffy Lube, and you’re making $9 an hour. The next year, you make $9.05. The next year, $9.10. Versus, ‘I’m going to invest in myself now, do the program, and then in two years, I have all these certificates, and I’m making $35,000 a year, and I’m able to support my family, and I have an ability to move up, rather than, ‘I’m just stuck chasing my own tail.’”

Headley’s colleague at Franklin, Holly Vaughn-Edmonds, said 60 percent of students there go on to community college.

“And of those 60, a high percentage of them tell us, ‘My family can’t pay anything, I’m on my own,’” Vaughn-Edmonds said.

Hass would cut that contribution to a $50 copay. Students would have to keep their grades up and stay out of trouble. Hass says it’s not for really low-income students who qualify for government grants.

“This will help the middle class and lower middle class, and I make no apologies for trying to help middle class families get their kids into college,” Hass said.

But it’s not a plan for older, middle class Oregonians interested in going back to college themselves.

“To keep these costs low for the state, we did have to put a restriction on it,” Hass said. “It’ll be open to those two years after they graduate.”

At 31, Anita Magana wouldn’t qualify. And neither would many of her classmates.

“I look at the graduating class for my program and over 50 percent are in their 30s,” Magana said.

The idea of free community college rubs some university leaders the wrong way.

“I understand why the president is excited about it, and some legislators. But you know what? I resent the idea that because you’re poor, you shouldn’t start at a four-year college,” Oregon State president, Ed Ray, said at a recent reception. “I don’t think that’s right.”

Hass says Ray is just defending his institution’s bottom line.

“They fear they’re going to lose their low-cost, high-income students,” Hass said.

Hass actually agrees with the program Ed Ray prefers — a grant program for low-income students — but said that has its limits, too.

Copyright 2015, Oregon Public Broadcasting