Oregon legislators passed a bill this week to cover the community college costs for qualifying state residents. Senate Bill 81, if signed into law by Gov. Kate Brown, would pay for Oregon students’ community college tuition remaining after receiving state or federal aid. Oregon would be the second state to offer such a program following Tennessee.

While described by some as a “free community college” program, there are requirements for applicants to qualify and there is a minimum payment that must be paid by students.

To be eligible, an applicant must be a recent high school graduate or equivalent who has lived Oregon for at least one year. An applicant must apply to community college no later than six months after graduation. The remainder of tuition costs will be covered only for students who first seek federal and state grants. Students are to pay $50 to the community college each term, and they must maintain a 2.5 or better grade point average.

State Sen. Mark Hass (D-Beaverton) said that each of the approximated 70,000 unemployed Oregon residents with no college degree between age 18 and 24 use an estimated $14,000 worth of various social services and aid each year. “A lifetime of food stamps is much more expensive than the annual community college tuition of $3,000,” Hass said in late May. Rep. Tobias Read, (D-Beaverton) made a similar statement, pointing out that “People who simply don’t have a lot of opportunities because of their lack of access [to post-secondary education] are costing this state money in social services and a lack of income taxes generated by their employment.”

Expenditures for the program have been capped at $10 million per year for the state’s two-year budget cycle. Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) supported the bill but expressed worry that the program may burden the state’s budget in the future. “I remain deeply concerned that once this bill and its escalating costs come into full effect, it simply is not going to be sustainable,” she said.

If signed into law, the program will begin in the 2016/17 school year.

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