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Free Community College Rules Announced


Seventh and eighth graders arrive from Ione to visit Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, as part of the Eastern Promise program.

Seventh and eighth graders arrive from Ione to visit Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, as part of the Eastern Promise program.

Rob Manning/OPB

High schoolers interested in Oregon’s fledgling “free community college” program now have a set of rules to follow.

Last session, law makers put $10 million toward helping high school seniors go on to community college, starting with the class of 2016. The Higher Education Coordinating Commission calls the new grant program the Oregon Promise.

Although the money can only be used toward community colleges — not four-year universities — Bob Brew, executive director of the higher ed commission’s Office of Student Access and Completion, is encouraging high school teachers to get all their seniors to apply.  

“Tell your students — even if you’re planning on going to Princeton, or Portland State, or wherever — do this as an insurance policy, have this is a backup plan, because there’s no harm or foul if you decide not to go to community college,” Brew said. “But don’t miss the opportunity to at least get in the queue for it.”  

Students can start applying Nov. 1. To access the money, students have to use what government aid they’re eligible for, keep their grades up, and pay at least $50 per term — possibly more for fees, books and other expenses.  

Students who qualify for a federal Pell Grant and who receive the full amount possible under the Oregon Opportunity Grant are unlikely to need any money from the Oregon Promise fund to pay community college tuition. But the fund will offer up to $1,000 for those low-income students to cover other expenses.

Unlike the Pell Grant, or the Oregon Opportunity Grant, Oregon Promise is not income-restricted, meaning students from wealthier backgrounds could receive up to $3,500 per year if they attend community college full-time.

Backers of the program expect a flood of applications.

If there are more qualified students than money available, the Higher Education Coordinating Commission could target money to students from certain schools or school districts, or the commission could enact rules to establish other priorities. But Brew doesn’t anticipate the fund running out of money, even though it’s probably enough for just 7,000 students. 

He said judging by Tennessee’s free college program, there are students who won’t use the money, possibly because they’ll choose to attend a university instead.

Brew said others, too,  won’t remain eligible for it, either because they take a year off before going to college, or because they fail to get all their paperwork in, or become academically ineligible. 

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