The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

March 13, 2014

States explore free community college

WASHINGTON — Several states are considering offering free tuition at community colleges, as the cost of a college education continues to climb and as high school diplomas no longer guarantee a living wage.

“Higher education for kids should not break families down” and result in a lifetime burden of debt, said Oregon state Sen. Mark Hass, a Democrat who sponsored legislation to study the viability of making tuition and fees at community colleges free to Oregon high school graduates.

In previous generations, Hass said, Oregonians could leave high school and easily find jobs in lumber mills, where they could earn a good living. But those days are gone, and jobs in auto garages, manufacturers and the service sector all require some technical training.

Hass said his bill also would help middle-class families whose children might attend community college for two years and then transfer to four-year colleges to save money.

Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber signed the bill with some reservations. While he testified for the bill last month, he questioned whether the money would be better spent on the state’s need-based scholarships for two- and four-year schools.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, is also pitching a plan to make tuition free at community colleges and colleges of applied technology.

“This is a bold promise,” Haslam said in his State of the State address in February. “It is a promise that will speak volumes to current and prospective employers. It is a promise that will make a real difference for generations of Tennesseans.”

The proposal is part of the governor’s “Drive to 55” initiative to increase the percentage of state residents with college degrees or advanced certificates from the current 32 percent to 55 percent by 2025. Haslam estimates the proposal would cost about $34 million a year, paid for by creating a new endowment from the state lottery’s reserve fund.

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