Seven years after Oregon launched the country’s second “college promise” program offering tuition-free community college to high school graduates, the initiative has made minimal to no progress on several of its stated goals.
Oregon Promise has not led to long-term increases in community college enrollment or moved the needle on community college completion rates. It hasn’t closed gaps in college access for students from minority groups or rural parts of the state. And while it has made college more affordable for some students, the grant’s impact on that metric has been minimal: State studies estimate that community college is now affordable for an additional 1% of students thanks to the promise grant.
The results are similar to Tennessee, the state after which we modeled our program.
“The original idea truly was a promise,” said former state Sen. Mark Hass, a Beaverton Democrat who championed the effort. “If you can finish high school, enroll in a community college program, maintain passing grades and stay out of trouble, the state promises to pick up the tab for your community college tuition.”
The goal was to catch the attention of high school graduates who weren’t planning to go to college from high school and help make college more affordable for them, Hass said.
The idea sounds simple. But the original design of Oregon Promise, including limiting it to students with at least a 2.5 high school GPA, hamstrung its progress.
State researchers say that the Oregon program’s eligibility criteria narrowed the pool of recipients to students who were already likely to go to college, instead of propelling loads of new students down the college-going path.
This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding. The primary problem of poor students isn’t that they’re economically poor. It’s that they’re academically poor. Certainly the two things can be and frequently are related, but we simply must acknowledge that not everyone is a good student any more than everyone is a good basketball player, acrobat, or counselor. People are different, with different skill sets. Throwing additional money at a cohort who’s terrible academically won’t make them successful unless money is what’s keeping them from that success. By the time we’re talking about community college, money won’t solve poor academics.
Oregon’s answer to this problem is then, of course, exactly wrong:
The state has recently made changes intended to fix several of these trends. In 2022 the Legislature agreed to lower the GPA requirement to 2.0, a move that research suggests will make the grant more accessible to low-income students, students of color and special education recipients. The state also got rid of the $50 co-pay and increased the minimum grant award available to students. Initially, students whose need-based federal and state financial aid fully covered tuition were given promise grants of $1,000 to help pay for books, fees and food; now that minimum is $2,000.
Lowering the GPA requirement, eliminating a co-pay, and increasing aid act only to double down on trying to make bad students continue their education beyond high school. I expect that more students will try it—free money is free money after all—but completion rates will stay low and the state will have spend more money for virtually no measurable return. (That said, not all educational benefits are easily quantifiable. There are worse ways to spend money.)
What we need to do instead: Fix public education at K-12 level to create more kids who might benefit from Oregon Promise rather than throw additional monies and lowered expectations at the existing model. Community college should be inexpensive, which it is—especially thanks to programs like the Oregon Promise. Until we fix public education, though, no amount of money or lowering of requirements will solve the problem it faces: There aren’t enough good students.