Tackling High College Tuition

Oregon may be on the front edge of a wave to examine giving free community college tuition to every Oregon high school graduate willing to go.We may be witnessing the start of a movement to address the rising cost of college. The Oregon Senate approved a bill this week to study giving all Oregon high school graduates free tuition for two years at an Oregon community college.

Earlier this week, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, a Republican, made the centerpiece of his State of the State Address a call for legislation to give all high school graduates in his state free access to community colleges and technical colleges. 

Policy analysts praised Haslam's proposal, which mirrors the study bill put forward by Oregon Senator Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, saying it is "big step toward a better educated work force."

In Oregon, free community college tuition for two years would appear to be a major boost to achieve the ambitious goal of 40 percent of Oregon adults having at least two years of college or technical training. The 40-40-20 plan also calls for 40 percent of the adult population to possess at least a 4-year degree and all Oregonians to achieve a high school diploma or its equivalent.

The burst of bipartisan support for free community college tuition may deflate after an analysis of the cost, as well as a comparison with the relative benefits and costs of an alternative — pumping more money into need-based student financial aid. 

While expressing some enthusiasm for the free community college tuition concept, Governor Kitzhaber raised the prospect of beefing up student aid as more economically targeted — and probably less expensive — approach to ensure access for students from lower income families.

Regardless of the final decisions in Oregon, Tennessee and elsewhere in the country, it looks as if a serious discussion has begun on what some view as a prohibitive barrier for students with low or modest family incomes and good-but-not-great grades to enter higher education.

The full contours of the discussion haven't emerged because 4-year colleges — and private or non-profit career colleges — haven't weighed in with their ideas to ensure access and choice. For many students, going to college means getting away from home. Some students only thrive with the more experiential style of hands-on learning offered by better quality career colleges.

Most encouraging about the initiatives in Oregon and Tennessee is that they have bipartisan backing, which suggests studies and draft legislation has a future worth watching.