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Free tuition in Oregon’s future?

The struggles of financial aid and the nightmare of student debt may become a thing of the past.

If the Oregon House and Gov. John Kitzhaber approve SB 1524, all high school graduates may get free community college education. First, the House and governor must approve the Higher Education Coordinating Commission to study the issue. The bill, however, has already passed the state Senate. If the study is approved, HECC reports back to the legislature by Sept. 30 with criteria for the program.

The debate over education reform usually comes down to one issue: resources.

“I think the concept would be fine if we had plenty of money for K-12 and higher education,” Rep. John Huffman, R-Ore., said via email. “My concerns are where would the money come from and would the money for a new program put other programs at risk. I don’t oppose studying the concept, but I am concerned that we may not be able to find a financial solution.” Huffman is a vice-chair of the state’s House Committee on Higher Education and Workforce Development. The bill was referred to this committee Feb. 12.

While a financial solution can be found in a number of ways — redirecting funds, accumulating debt or generating new revenue — a consensus among state legislators and the governor will be required.

One potential source of funding may be through a tax reform effort by Kitzhaber; however, the typical political translation for “tax reform” is “tax increase.”

Some have suggested a sales tax as part of this reform effort.

While a sales tax may seem fair, appearances can be deceiving: Sales taxes generally hit lower income people the most because a larger percent of their income goes to buying food and other essentials.

Kitzhaber has said to The Washington Post that tax reform efforts would be presented to voters on a ballot, but people will undoubtedly worry about paying higher taxes, regardless of their support for free college tuition.

“[Free community college tuition] is a great idea, but it shouldn’t come at the price of tax dollars — income taxes and property taxes,” Mary Burleson, a UCC student, said. “It needs to be paid for another way.”

One alternative which has been suggested is the decriminalization and taxation of marijuana, which now polls at 57 percent approval in Oregon, according to a May poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. However, legalizing marijuana may fail to bring in enough to fund free college.

Funding is not the only issue. Unintended side effects are a concern, such as whether people will waste the tuition by not taking education as seriously. According to a telephone interview with Nathan Howard, chief of staff for Sen. Mark Hass, the free tuition may include restrictions to ensure students are dedicated, such as GPA or community service requirements.

Should the statewide effort to fund free college tuition fail, there is still some hope: Some individual community colleges are working to offer free tuition option.

“One final thought is should this be left up to the individual community colleges,” Huffman said via email. “Columbia Gorge Community College has a new program called Gorge Scholars. It allows free tuition for Gorge students that have a 3.5 or above GPA.”

UCC will offer UCC Scholars, a free tuition program for top high school graduates this fall.

The state has not decided if free community college tuition is in the future for Oregonians, but Oregon has already begun to undertake a number of efforts to enhance the state’s higher education system. Whether free tuition will be part of this reform depends both on the state and if the HECC study can bring good news to an education system that continues to drift downhill.