Long Beach City College graduates enter Veterans Memorial Stadium for their commencement ceremony in Long Beach on Thursday, June 6, 2019. (Photo by Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images)
Long Beach City College graduates enter Veterans Memorial Stadium for their commencement ceremony in Long Beach on Thursday, June 6, 2019. (Photo by Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images)

Oregon is one of more than a dozen states that helps cover the cost of tuition at community colleges for eligible students.

The collective student loan debt in the United States reached a record high of $1.67 trillion this June, and it’s no mystery why: The cost of higher education has skyrocketed, more than doubling over the past two decades to reach an average $48,000 tuition at a private college, even after adjusting for inflation. At the same time, the median income in the country has been largely stagnant, hovering around $60,000.

Americans’ struggle to pay for college made the issue a top focus for Democrats during their presidential primary. And while many balked at candidates proposing “free” college, there are successful programs running throughout the country that get students to college without saddling them with debt. 

According to Morley Winograd, the president and founder of the Campaign for Free College Tuition, about 16 states have programs that make community college tuition free or almost free for students.

One such program is the Oregon Promise Grant, which was set up by the state legislature in 2016. It helps cover tuition costs at any state community college for recent high school and General Education Development (GED) graduates. There are eligibility requirements–such as grade averages, state residency, and time restrictions–but the program ultimately makes higher education more affordable.  

Endi Hartigan, the communications director for the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission, said in an interview with COURIER that data shows the grant has made a positive impact on the number of high schools graduates attending college. 

“There is evidence that the Oregon Promise expanded the number of recent high school graduates who went to college by 2%,” she said. “Even small increases during this time period are notable because enrollment is generally down during times of a strong economy.” 

She also said there is some indication that the Oregon Promise Grant is helping students stay on their degree track. 

“Early findings indicated that Oregon Promise students largely experience positive outcomes,” Hartigan said. “The majority of students had earned a credential, transferred to a public university, or were still enrolled in community college two years into the program,” Hartigan said. 

Winograd pointed to programs in Tennessee and Rhode Island that have demonstrated significant success in increasing enrollment, especially among first generation college students. He also said there are economic benefits that come to states willing to spend money on community college tuition.

“There’s enormous economic benefits in states with a higher degree of residents who have a college degree,” he said. “States with residents who have a college degree earn more from income tax because those people earn more. The average person with a two year, let alone a four year degree, earns a considerably larger amount of money.” 

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, a person who graduated with a four year degree on average earns more than $30,000 more than someone with a high school diploma. Winograd also said a four-year degree student is “much more likely to lead to employment for the individual student.” 

“The college unemployment rate pre-pandemic was very low, now even in the pandemic, those with a college degree have either survived or gotten a different job than the one they had pre-pandemic. So college is a great employment benefit.”

The Obama administration proposed a program that would’ve made the first two years of college free for eligible students, but it didn’t get far due to opposition from the Republican Senate. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has a community college plan that would expand the premise of the Oregon Promise Grant to include adult students who might have graduated high school many years ago. It would rely on the federal government funding 75% of the cost and states contributing the remaining 25%. For Native American Tribes operating community colleges for low income students the federal government would cover up to 95% of the costs.