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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

Oregon's New Tuition Waiver No Guarantee Of 'Free' Community College

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File photo of the McMinnville campus of Chemeketa Community College.

Oregon’s state legislature outpaced most of the country this past session when lawmakers passed a tuition waiver program for two years of community college. But that’s no guarantee of “free” school.

The first registration day of the school year was this month at Chemeketa Community College in Salem -- and it was the first day back since Oregon passed a tuition waiver program. It’s called the “Oregon Promise” and, on this day, students were curious about it.

“That was actually the first question of the day this morning,” said Stefanie Shandy, a student who works in the financial aid office.

Hopes of free college

When other students come in to ask Shandy about the program, she’ll have bad news for most: You won’t qualify. That’s because Oregon Promise is meant only for students who graduated high school within six months of enrolling. But in Oregon, the average age of community college students is 35.

Younger students are getting their hopes up, too.

Aireanna Murray is 18 and just graduated high school. Like many students here, she wasn’t expecting to have to pay tuition next year. But she also won’t qualify for Oregon Promise. Actually, none of the students enrolling today will. Even if they have the required GPA of 2.5 or higher, they’ll have been out of high school for too long by the time the program begins in fall 2016.

“I got a way better GPA than 2.5, so I think I deserve the free college,” Murray said.

Only about 4,000 to 6,000 students will qualify for the program in its first year. That’s less than 2 percent of Oregon community college students.

And Oregon Promise is a last-dollar program. That means students will have to apply for -- and accept -- all the financial aid they can. Then, the state will waive the rest. But even supporters of Oregon Promise say that requirement can result in students leaving aid money on the table. The hurdle is filling out the FAFSA -- the federal application for student aid. It’s how students apply for grants and loans.

And it’s more complicated than it sounds.

No way around FAFSA

Just take it from Richard Evans, who works with Shandy in the financial aid office.

“There are as many different problems as there are people,” he said.

One of those problems: The federal government figures parents will support children until age 24. So anyone younger needs tax information from their parents.

Shandy has only been working in the financial aid office a few weeks, but she’s already seen problems with this.

“Mom came in with her tax ID information, she was frustrated because she didn’t even understand why we needed that information for her 18-year-old daughter,” she said. Without your parents’ information, you cannot apply for aid. The only way get around it: you have to qualify as an “independent student” and that’s hard to do, even if your parents are not paying for college.

“Yeah, it makes it more difficult for students who want to go back to school, but aren’t in contact with their parents,”’ Shandy said. “I mean I went through the same thing with my parents.”

Shandy said she had trouble filling out her own FAFSA because she isn’t in contact with her father. She said that’s pretty common.

But, for the Oregon Promise, there’s no way around it. You have to fill out a FAFSA. Period.

'I don’t think we’re ready for it yet'

State Sen. Mark Hass is the lawmaker behind the program. He says he knows the FAFSA is complicated, but that’s how it works.

“I didn’t design the FAFSA myself,” Hass said. “I’m not sure I would do a better job. If you want people to give you money generally you have to fill out some kind of form that is long and involved.”

Hass said making students apply for federal aid is the only way Oregon can afford the program right now. Plus, according to Chemeketa Dean of Financial Aid Kathy Campbell, letting everyone in all at once isn’t realistic -- logistically.

Campbell said more students attending college is a good thing, but allowing everyone to enroll at once?

“I don’t think we’re ready for it yet,” she said.

Chemeketa already processes more than 27,000 FAFSAs each year. They’ve already hired two part-time employees to help take on Oregon Promise applications. If more students were eligible, Campbell said it would be hard for schools to keep up.

Richard Evans knows there are sound reasons for limited eligibility, but he can easily conjure up the voice of a student who doesn’t.

“‘I thought I could just get free college’,” he said. “I could see it now.”

And when they ask him about it, Evans will have to be the one to say, “That’s not ‘free’ community college.”