Soon, Oregon high school graduates looking to attend Oregon community colleges could get their associate’s for free. Senate Bill 1524, passed in the 2014 Feb.-March regular legislative session, is directing the Higher Education Coordination Commission to study the possibility of implementing a “six-year high school” program. This would mean that Oregon high school graduates could receive two free years of community college education.
But as the education commission looks at bringing that plan into fruition, both costs and methods are hurdles facing the state.
SB 1524 was popular at the Oregon State Legislature, receiving a vote of 57 to two in the House and 30 to zero in the Senate. But allocating funds for passage of the plan might be could be more difficult than receiving the initial support, according to Kevin Kimball, chief financial officer at Central Oregon Community College.
“One of the frustrations I have is they’re trying to go clear to no tuition, and yet the state cannot fund the financial obligations they have in terms of the state grants they’ve made available,” Kimball said.
Though the financial impact has not been directly specified, the costs per student have been estimated, according to State Senator Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, the sponsor of the bill.
“We’re talking about $3,500 dollars per person [for a year],” Hass said.
With potentially thousands of Oregon high school graduates eligible each year, the planning commission has one major aspect to look at: Where the yearly millions of dollars of funding would come from.
“It’s a complex issue,” COCC President Jim Middleton said.
For Middleton, the main concern with implementing such a program at COCC is ensuring funding is not cut in other areas.
“It’s not something that’s good or bad,” Middleton said. “It’s assessing the implications of the choices that we make.”
COCC currently operates on a “three-legged stool” approach, by trying to maintain equal amounts of funding for general operations, facility funding and student needs. One of the potential issues with implementing a six-year high school plan could be offsetting that balance by having to cut certain areas, according to Kimball. An issue that might come up in the planning of the implementation would be using a differential tuition rate. With that type of rate, Oregon community colleges might establish tuition, but those under the free associate’s program might have a set, potentially lower amount by the state for the same amount of credits.
While funding is an obstacle, the Higher Education Coordination Commission is considering ways to overcome the hurdle. Decreasing costs through education could translate into more academic means, according to Middleton.
“Part of what advocates are focused on is the state’s long-term quality of life and education benefit to have a more educated citizenry,” Middleton said.
Previous studies have shown that the higher the education, the lower the incarceration rates, health care costs, welfare costs and unemployment rates, according to Middleton.
A transfer of funds to education has found favor with Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, according to Middleton.
“The governor has been trying to decrease expenditure on prison cost to be able to recondition prison and health care costs to education,” Middleton said. “That frees up money for education, in a sense that money for education would have a greater long-term benefit to the state than the other options.”
Now the Higher Education Coordination Commission has the task of studying under the allocation of SB 1524. The commission’s goal is to present funding solutions to the Oregon State Legislature by the 2015 January-February regular legislative session, and requirements for eligibility form a concern. While SB 1524 considers the implications of providing free community college classes to all Oregon grads, a cap might need to be set for the sake of finances, according to Kimball.
“If you say, ‘All that fall under this program would qualify; the state’s going to provide the dollars,’ that’s major funding,” Kimball said.
Kimball related the example to Nevada, which previously offered a scholarship to in-state high school graduates holding GPAs of 3.0 or higher. In that program, while full-ride scholarships were offered, the program extended all their funds and had to shut it down.
One option to confront this might be limiting the pool of applicants through financial eligibility, according to Middleton.
“If you said, for instance, ‘We’re going to do this for people that have financial need greater than X,’ you might spend significantly less on the program rather than if it’s for every high school graduate,” Middleton said.
But according to the original sponsor of the feasibility bill, Hass, limited requirements should be placed on the plan.
“We’re going to try to do Pell Grant guidelines, which are essentially a 2.0 GPA,” Hass said. “My intent is not to do any needs testing.”
Hass believes eligibility should be open to encourage free access to education, much like Medicare and social security are without financial caps.
A lack of limiting requirements could pose accessibility problems, though, according to Middleton.
“If we made it free for all students, it would give you a free pass, but one you might not be able to cash in because of longer wait lists for courses and programs,” Middleton said.
From a study commission to law
For now, SB 1524 has one major purpose: To gather cost projections and plans for the future. As the Higher Education Coordination Committee considers the implications of revolutionizing the Oregon community college system, the committee is expected to look at blueprints from other states. After considering options, the committee will provide recommendations in the fall.
As chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Hass plans to push forward the results of the study.
“We’ll refine [the recommendations] and see where we go in January-February of next year, and then it will be considered by the legislature,” Hass said.
With near-unanimous votes in favor for passage of SB 1524 in the last legislative session, Hass believes its hopeful predecessor, a bill implementing the plan rather than studying it, would also find success.
“This is the direction to go. The question is how do we do it, and what kind of rules should we have?” Hass said.
Middleton is also supportive of the intent of the six-year high school plan, but unsure if it will be passed into law.
“I think there are challenges and opportunities here that still need a lot of thinking through,” Middleton said. “I do applaud the creativity and the investment mentality that goes into even asking the question.”
Junnelle Hogen | The Broadside