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Bill studies tuition-free community colleges

(The Register-Guard) — SALEM -- Could Oregon feasibly offer two years of free community college to all in-state high school graduates?

State lawmakers this session appear set to commission a study of that question, as they did last year with another innovative but financially fuzzy concept aimed at curbing the rising costs of college education and the resultant student debt.

In 2013, Oregon received a great deal of national media attention about a study of a proposal dubbed "Pay-It-Forward," which would allow students to attend university at no cost initially but bind them to paying a flat percentage of their future income back to the state for a certain number of years.

This year, Senate Bill 1524 would initiate a look at the tuition-free community college concept, known as "The Oregon Promise," that would be conducted by the Higher Education Coordinating Commission in coming months.

After a brief initial public hearing Tuesday, the Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee unanimously approved SB 1524, sending it to the full Senate.

Gov. John Kitzhaber offered qualified support for the concept, noting that there are a number of "complexities" and "potential pitfalls" that need to be examined by the commission.

"When we talk about a free two years of college, it should not be license to simply have a blank check" from the state and taxpayers, he said.

Still, Kitzhaber characterized efforts to make college more affordable as "incredibly important" and added that state lawmakers cannot afford to move "incrementally" on the issue.

Sen. Mark Hass, a Beaverton Democrat and champion of the bill, said that the average per-student cost of two years of community college tuition and fees in Oregon is around $7,400.

Early estimates would put the cost to the state of implementing the proposed program at anywhere between $50 million and $100 million a year, he said.

"We all recognize that there is no longer a path from high school to the middle class without some sort of technical training or higher education," he added.

Sen. Arnie Roblan, a Coos Bay Democrat, said the best implementation method could involve students being reimbursed for their outlay on community college tuition after they successfully complete a term of classes.

"If you just have (the option of a tuition waiver) there, some (students) will not take it seriously enough to finish it," he said.

No one testified in opposition to the bill Tuesday.

Like the "Pay-It-Forward" study, the Higher Education Coordinating Commission would be charged with bringing the tuition waiver study back to lawmakers later this year, should SB 1524 be approved. Potential legislation to actually implement either concept would be debated in the 2015 regular session.

The "Pay-It-Forward" concept is still under development by the state, and the finances and state budgetary implications of it remain unclear.


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