3 Ideas to Make College (Mostly) Free

Oregon’s Legislature is kicking around concepts that would make college free, or much cheaper, for Oregon’s increasingly diverse student population.

THE DALLES, OR - JUNE 15: Mt. Hood rises in the background as the town of The Dalles is seen on the Columbia River June 15, 2006 in Oregon. Google is building two new computing centers in the town of 12,000, 80 miles from Portland. (Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer/Getty Images)
National Journal
Sophie Quinton
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Sophie Quinton
Dec. 1, 2013, midnight

Ore­gon wants 80 per­cent of its adults to hold a col­lege de­gree or post­sec­ond­ary cer­ti­fic­ate by 2025. To meet that goal, law­makers are fo­cused on mak­ing col­lege more af­ford­able — wheth­er that means in­creas­ing fund­ing after years of budget cuts or re­think­ing tu­ition pay­ments al­to­geth­er.

Cur­rently, about a third of stu­dents in the Beaver State don’t gradu­ate from high school on time — or at all — and just 61 per­cent of gradu­ates im­me­di­ately head to col­lege. A third of Ore­gon stu­dents are non­white, and half of stu­dents are low-in­come.

State and loc­al fund­ing for high­er edu­ca­tion dropped by 32 per­cent between 2007 and 2012 even as en­roll­ment jumped by 36.2 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to the State High­er Edu­ca­tion Ex­ec­ut­ive Of­ficers As­so­ci­ation. Un­sur­pris­ingly, Ore­gon stu­dents are pay­ing 18 per­cent more in tu­ition and fees than the na­tion­al av­er­age, and stu­dents’ debt loads are soar­ing.

Here are three ideas kick­ing around the state Le­gis­lature that would make col­lege free, or much cheap­er, for Ore­gon’s in­creas­ingly di­verse stu­dent pop­u­la­tion. If the state can suc­cess­fully pi­lot these con­cepts, they could catch on na­tion­wide.

1: “PAY IT FOR­WARD”

One pro­pos­al would al­low stu­dents to at­tend pub­lic two- and four-year col­leges at no up­front cost — so long as they com­mit­ted up­front to pay their alma ma­ter or the state a fixed por­tion of their post-gradu­ation salar­ies. Un­der the plan’s ini­tial out­line, the typ­ic­al four-year stu­dent would pay about 3 per­cent of her an­nu­al in­come to her alma ma­ter for 20 to 25 years.

A class at Port­land State Uni­versity came up with the idea, and the state’s High­er Edu­ca­tion Co­ordin­at­ing Com­mis­sion is re­search­ing wheth­er “Pay It For­ward” would be feas­ible. It may re­com­mend a pi­lot pro­gram in its re­port to the Le­gis­lature in 2015.

Get­ting a statewide pro­gram off the ground could cost more than $9 bil­lion over 24 years, un­til enough gradu­ates are pay­ing in­to the sys­tem to make it self-sus­tain­ing, The Wall Street Journ­al re­ports. Ore­gon will have to fig­ure out how to track gradu­ates who move out of state, what to do about stu­dents who en­roll in col­lege for a few years but nev­er gradu­ate, and how to main­tain the bal­ance of high and low earners ne­ces­sary to keep in­sti­tu­tions fully fun­ded.

“Pay It For­ward” wouldn’t ne­ces­sar­ily elim­in­ate the need for fin­an­cial aid: Liv­ing ex­penses and oth­er costs wouldn’t be covered by the pro­gram. And for stu­dents who enter low-pay­ing fields after gradu­ation, in­come-based re­pay­ment for fed­er­al stu­dent loans may ac­tu­ally be a bet­ter deal, ac­cord­ing to The Wash­ing­ton Post.

2: FREE COM­MUNITY COL­LEGE

State Sen. Mark Hass has pro­posed that Ore­gon should pay for all qual­i­fied stu­dents to at­tend com­munity col­lege for two years. Stu­dents seek­ing an as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree, those pur­su­ing an in­dustry cre­den­tial, and stu­dents want­ing to earn cred­its be­fore trans­fer­ring to a four-year uni­versity would be­ne­fit.

Hass ar­gues that al­though the pro­pos­al could cost about $250 mil­lion per year, pay­ing for edu­ca­tion that pre­pares stu­dents for bet­ter jobs will save the state money over the long run. “Two years of com­munity-col­lege cred­it is a much bet­ter value than a life­time on food stamps,” the Demo­crat­ic law­maker says.

Fund­ing could come from a vari­ety of sources. The state could ap­ply for per­mis­sion to use Pell Grant schol­ar­ship money for this pur­pose. An­oth­er op­tion is a state-fun­ded schol­ar­ship fund that Ore­go­ni­ans will vote on next year. Hass is ex­plor­ing wheth­er cor­por­ate or phil­an­throp­ic con­tri­bu­tions might help cov­er the cost. “It may be one of those things where it’s not one sil­ver bul­let or one tax; in­stead it’s a hun­dred dif­fer­ent things,” he says.

3: RE­QUIR­ING ALL STU­DENTS TO EARN COL­LEGE CRED­ITS

Last spring, law­makers con­sidered re­quir­ing all high school stu­dents to earn about nine col­lege cred­its be­fore gradu­ation but balked at the $1 bil­lion such a re­quire­ment would cost. A com­mit­tee is look­ing in­to oth­er ways of ex­pand­ing op­por­tun­it­ies for teens to earn cred­its while in high school, and it will re­port back to the Le­gis­lature in Oc­to­ber 2014.

While com­mit­tees de­lib­er­ate, some loc­al school dis­tricts are already tak­ing ac­tion. The rur­al Corbett school dis­trict wants to make ac­cept­ance to a post­sec­ond­ary in­sti­tu­tion a re­quire­ment for re­ceiv­ing a high school dip­loma, The Ore­go­ni­an re­por­ted in Oc­to­ber. The dis­trict already re­quires all high school stu­dents to take at least six Ad­vanced Place­ment courses, and it pays for all ju­ni­ors to take the SAT.

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