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The Oregon House and Senate have approved a bill co-sponsored by Rep. Mark Johnson, Republican from Hood River, and Sen. Mark Hass, Democrat from Beaverton, to waive most tuition at Oregon community colleges for many students. The bill passed both chambers with veto-proof majorities, and everyone expects Governor Kate Brown to sign it into law.

By their own admission, Rep. Johnson and Sen. Hass followed in Tennessee’s footsteps.  

The program is limited to relatively recent high school graduates with high school GPA’s of at least 2.5. As with Tennessee’s, it’s designed as a “last dollar” program, meaning that students first have to apply for, and use, any other grants or scholarships for which they’re eligible; the state will fill in the gap between whatever grants they receive and the cost of tuition, minus a fifty dollar per course deductible. (They don’t call it a deductible, but it works like one.)

The idea is to make it easier for new high school graduates to get post-secondary training or education at a low-cost but respected institution.  

In broad outline, I like the idea a lot. It owes a lot to Sara Goldrick-Rab’s F2CO proposal from a couple of years ago, with a few tweaks to make it fit Oregon’s budget. The relative simplicity of the policy -- fifty bucks a course -- makes it an easy sell to students and families who are understandably wary of student loans. Assuming a 60 credit degree and three credits per class, that’s 20 classes at 50 bucks a pop, for a total of $1,000 for the first two years of college. If you’re taking a “terminal” degree or certificate with direct workforce applicability, then you’re getting a potentially significant lifetime wage bump for a thousand dollars. If you’re transferring, you’ll almost certainly start your junior year without debt.  

As the ad used to say, if you can find a better deal, take it.  

From a student perspective, the program’s flaws are minor. Unlike Goldrick-Rab’s original proposal, it doesn’t include support for living expenses, books, and the like, so actual costs are higher than fifty bucks a class. I’m guessing the fifty bucks per class will be out-of-pocket, which could cause issues for some students, but a college with a forward-looking foundation -- hint, hint -- could easily make that up for students with hardships. Many students require more than sixty credits to graduate, given remediation, ESL needs, and/or stopouts. And adult students are out of luck, at least for the time being. Though I wouldn’t be surprised to see the program expand its reach if it proves successful.

Institutionally, the reports I’ve seen don’t shed much light. From the inside, I’d be concerned about increased demand with capped or decreased revenue. If the state has to cover the gap between Federal aid and the price of tuition (minus deductible), then I’d imagine the state would want to control tuition pretty tightly. Unless the package comes with significant increases in operating aid -- and commitments to sustain those increases over time -- a seeming bargain to students could come at the cost of hollowing out the institutions to which they’re gaining access.  

Rep. Johnson and Sen. Hass point out, correctly, that a few thousand dollars of community college tuition is far cheaper over time than years on food stamps. If they can sustain a consensus around that perspective -- as the bumper sticker used to put it, “if you think education is expensive, try ignorance” -- the program could actually work.

Over time, I’d expect to see the program evolve in several ways. If the program works, I’d expect to see older students included. If competency-based education gains steam in Oregon, the funding mechanism will have to change. But the real test will come with the next recession. In recessions, state aid goes down and enrollments go up. That could put a fatal pincer movement on the funding mechanism. Obviously, it would be lovely if we never had a recession again, but hope is not a plan.

Still, in a period when public higher education is only starting to recover from the devastating blows of a fiscal meltdown, Tennessee and Oregon represent green shoots. Good ideas are starting to take root, sometimes in places I wouldn’t have expected.  Hope is not a plan, but it’s something.  Well done, Oregon.


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