Keeping the Oregon Promise

To the people of Oregon,

I write you today about the future of the Oregon Promise, a hallmark educational policy that put your state on the map, making it a national leader in higher education.

Community colleges are among the country’s greatest assets, and their students represent some of the most determined, resilient, and hopeful of our citizens. But they also have been persistently under-funded for most of the last 20 years. This is particularly true in Oregon where tuition is among the highest in the country, community colleges receive little in state appropriations, and the grant program targeted to low-income students is substantially under-funded, leaving many out in the cold. Yet 48% of all Oregon undergraduates are enrolled in its community colleges. This has left leadership, staff, faculty, and students overworked and exhausted, diminishing their capacity and contributions. Constant under-appreciation by the public hasn’t helped.

This presents Oregon with a serious problem, since it is among the 10 states with the highest percent of jobs that demand a college education. Oregon needs a break from a status quo, leaving behind a broken higher education financing system that has failed far too many. Fortunately, in 2015 the Oregon Legislature took a promising step in a bold new direction when it created the Oregon Promise, putting community colleges at the front of a new effort to revitalize public higher education in a state known for its very limited public investments.

Is the Oregon Promise perfect? Hardly. It is nascent program working through a process of incremental innovation towards a more perfect model. But it follows an approach based on strong theory and evidence about how people make decisions about higher education, how they are affected by prices, and how they vote to support (or not) public policies. Consider the following:

1. The Promise offers a clear, easily accessible message (“In Oregon, community college is free”) that overcomes widespread confusion about the price of college, scaring off students who are capable of college work and need it to secure a decent life. A new, early evaluation of the Promise, by the independent firm Education Northwest, found that the program changed perceptions of the price, helping students see that college could be affordable.

2. The Promise discounts the price of community college by at least $1,000, an amount that studies have shown can boost degree completion rates if the resources actually reach students (this does not always happen with regular need-based aid). It helps focus institutional attention on affordability, reinvigorating efforts to create programs for economically vulnerable students.

3. Moreover, the Promise reignites a critical conversation about the future funding of public higher education — and community colleges in particular — and this time the conversation includes a broad swath of the middle-class. American history shows that programs solely focused on serving poor people are, themselves, poor programs. In contrast, longstanding programs with committed funding tend to include families from across the economic spectrum. Many community colleges have been treated as stepchildren, segregated and impoverished, and that is shifting along with their enrollment. But in 2015–2016, public higher education saw the largest boost in funding recorded over the last 20 years.

Despite many early indications that the Oregon Promise is succeeding in exactly the ways that it should, critics are attacking it. For some reason, rather than giving the effort a fair shot to succeed, they aim to cut it short and preserve the status quo. But is the status quo good for Oregon families? No. The purchasing power of the traditional Oregon Opportunity Grant (e.g. how much it discounts college) has fallen unabated for years — while it might be preferable to instead invest in that program to make college affordable, there is no indication that it is politically feasible — and students can’t wait.

Some people are apparently distressed that some of the Promise funding has been distributed to middle-class students whose families made up to $100,000 a year. This is striking given the evident crisis facing the middle-class in Oregon, where many families are falling from grace, losing their grip on an ability to provide their kids with a college education. The net price of attending Oregon community college is 22% of median family income, one of the highest rates in the nation. When the middle-class is priced out along with the working-class, it would seem wise for all families to work together in pursuit of a common policy rather than compete and exclude. The fact that the Promise is universal does not mean that it is regressive. A policy can treat everyone the same and yet exert stronger benefits for those students starting further behind. This is exactly what the Promise is doing — the Education Northwest evaluation found that almost 1 in 3 first-generation students receiving the Promise said that without it they would not have attended college, compared to 18% of continuing generation students.

Among the most vocal critics — and the most powerful — are Oregon’s public universities. It is heartbreaking to watch this happen, as one critical set of public institutions fights with others over scarce resources. But that is exactly what’s happening. Oregon’s universities are like many around the country in that they are experiencing modest enrollment declines. But they are unlike others, in that instead of examining demographic trends or their own prices or activities, they blame community colleges and the Oregon Promise. Such a claim is without data. Indeed, in other states, reductions in the price of community college have led over time (not immediately) to increase enrollment in public universities, as more students have successfully transferred. Oregon’s public universities ought to support the Oregon Promise and exercise patience.

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What now? Now is the time to maintain the Oregon Promise and see what it can deliver. Policymakers should not make the program more complicated by introducing an income-test, minimizing the potential for it to grow a broad constituency. They should not steal from the Oregon Opportunity Grant to fund the Promise — that would be shortsighted and foolish. Instead, this is the time to work on the Promise’s implementation, refining the marketing to ensure that in every corner of the state the message is clear: A college education matters, and every hard-working Oregonian can achieve it. Engage independent evaluators to answer the important questions — how many new students came to college because of the Promise, and how many succeeded in earning degrees? How did the program affect disparities in access among rural vs. urban families in the state, and those with and without college-educated members of the household? We don’t yet know those things, but what we do know is that the status quo wasn’t getting the job done. Oregon deserves better, and the Promise deserves a chance to get it right.