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‘First Dollar’ Program Better For Students Than ‘Free’ College Bill

Paying for community college may get a little easier now that Senate Bill 81 has passed in the Oregon Legislature, but community college officials say it’s more of a step in the right direction than a miracle cure for students’ financial woes. While this bill, called a “last dollar” program, provides assistance in the form of filling in tuition gaps that other grants leave, heftier legislation in the form of a “first dollar” program is needed for community college tuition to truly be “free.”

The bill, which Gov. Kate Brown is expected to sign, sets the Oregon Promise program into motion in 2016 and allocates $10 million toward community college tuition for students who have applied for federal grants, filling in the remaining sum owed after other grants are applied. Among other requirements, students must have graduated from high school or received their GED within the past six months to qualify.

“It’s providing support for students to access higher education, which makes a difference in entering the economic mainstream, and it’s a good step to take,” says Lane Community College President Mary Spilde.

Spilde explains that the bill constitutes a “last dollar” program, which pays the remainder of tuition not covered by other state grants or federal Pell grants. In-state tuition at LCC is about $99.50 per credit, so community college students are less likely than university students to have a tuition remainder after applying Pell grants. Tuition at four-year institutions can cost twice as much, not including fees. 

“One of the things we worked on with the Legislature this season is helping low-income students,” Spilde says. “So students in that category will get at least $1,000, even if all their tuition is paid by a Pell grant.”

Spilde adds that community college students, and low-income students in particular, would receive greater benefit from a “first dollar” program, the kind President Obama proposed in his State of the Union speech earlier this year. 

Andrea Henderson, executive director of the Oregon Community Colleges Association (OCCA), says that first dollar programs are of great benefit to low-income students. “A first dollar program is one where the student walks in the door and you waive tuition for them. They can then apply for other financial aid and that would come in on top of the tuition waiver, so that can go to transportation or living expenses.” 

At LCC, 84 percent of students are eligible for federal Pell Grants, “so that represents a lot of disadvantaged students,” Spilde says. 

The OCCA is officially neutral on the Oregon Promise program but supports the possibility of first dollar programs, Henderson says.

Last week in Washington, D.C., Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia introduced legislation that resembled a first dollar program, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. The bill seeks to provide free community college tuition to all eligible students.

The likelihood of such a bill getting passed by a conservative Congress is low, but “the fact that it’s been introduced and that we can have this conversation with presidential candidates is a very good thing,” Spilde says.