Shared Responsibility Model passes out of Senate, House next to approve

A proposed new model for how lower and middle-income Oregon students pay for college looks poised to become a reality, after sailing through the state Senate Wednesday on a unanimous vote.

A proposed new model for how lower and middle-income Oregon students pay for college looks poised to become a reality, after sailing through the state Senate Wednesday on a unanimous vote.

The bill now moves to the House for consideration. Gov. Ted Kulongoski has called its passage one of his top education priorities for the current legislative session.

The idea, first put forward by the state Board of Higher Education, is that students will have to help pay for their college education, putting as much as they’d earn from working 40 hours a week during the summer, and 10 to 15 hours a week during the school year at a minimum wage job toward their tuition bill.

Their parents would also be required to ante up, within a family’s financial limits, and students would be expected to seek the maximum from federal Pell Grant funding.

But after all those options had been tapped, the state would kick in the rest of their tuition bill. That’s enough that students graduating from community colleges should be able to leave debt-free, said the bill’s chief sponsor, state Sen. Kurt Schrader, D-Canby, and those leaving four-year schools would carry an average debt of about $13,000. The current average is around $20,000.

Estimates are that a student with a first job that pays $30,000 a year could pay off a $13,000 debt within 10 years.

College affordability has been a central issue in Oregon for years, picking up steam after the state was embarrassed by failing grades in national surveys on the topic. Funding for the existing grant program was increased during the 2005 legislative session, even though the state was still digging its way out of recession.

The new model would up that funding even more. The legislature’s top budget writers have proposed adding $47 million to the current $78 million allocated to the Oregon Student Assistance Commission, which currently administers grants to the state’s neediest students, covering about 11 percent of their education, for an annual average grant of $1,207.

The proposal was carefully crafted to appeal across the political spectrum, both with its increase in state aid, and its mandate that the extra funding can only be tapped if students make their own contribution.

The governor’s office has estimated that the new model would more than double the number of grant recipients, from 19,101 to 42,047, and increase the average grant amount from $1,209 to about $2,100 per student. But lawmakers have also said it could take several years before awareness of the new model fully spreads to the targeted 80 percent of university students and 55 percent of community college students.

A similar model has been in place in Minnesota for almost two decades, according to the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education, and college-going rates in that state are among the highest in the nation.

Higher education advocates have praised the new model, even as they sound alarms about proposed legislative funding levels for collegiate construction and general operations, which are below those outlined by Kulongoski in his December budget.

“It’s like opening a window with a wall behind it,” said Courtney Morse, student body president at Portland State. More students will be able to matriculate, but could have trouble getting the classes they need and attention from professors, she added.

A recent Oregon Student Association survey of about 4,300 community college and university students found that about 30 percent said that being unable to get into the courses they needed had forced them to spend more time in college, increasing their debt.

Schrader and Rep. Mary Nolan, D-Portland, the legislature’s chief budget writers, point out that even though they’ve allocated less than the governor recommended, their budget still contains significant increases for universities and community colleges, $65 million and $35 million above current spending levels, respectively.