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A nice idea, but unlikely

A free community college education for every Oregon high school graduate? Sounds great — if all the potential pitfalls are addressed, and the money can be found, and ... let's just say there are a great many ifs.

The Oregon Senate Thursday unanimously approved a bill ordering the Higher Education Coordinating Committee to study the idea and report back later this year. The 2015 Legislature could conceivably address the question if the committee determines it's feasible.

The unanimous vote was the easy part. There's no political risk in voting for a study. But the potential obstacles to such a plan are many, starting with the price tag.

Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, the bill's sponsor and chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, estimates it would cost $100 million to $200 million to cover two years' tuition for the 32,000 Oregon students who earn high school diplomas each year. That alone is reason to doubt the chances of the idea becoming reality. But there's more.

That cost reflects only the tuition. How would community colleges cope with an onslaught of thousands of new students? If tuition alone covered the cost of faculty and classrooms, schools could simply hire more people and build more buildings. But it doesn't.

Community colleges, like the state's four-year institutions, have been chronically under-funded for years, and the amount of money the state pays community colleges for each student enrolled continues to decline.

Gov. John Kitzhaber has voiced support for the concept — again, an easy thing to do when no money is on the line — but suggested safeguards be included, such as requiring good grades before students could qualify. Other supporters recommended requiring students to complete a term or a year before receiving the state funds.

One potential side effect of free community college that the study needs to address is the impact on four-year institutions. Why should students apply as freshmen to the University of Oregon or Southern Oregon University if they could get their first two years free and then transfer?

Hass says he was motivated to propose the idea because of the massive debt students face. That's a very real problem, but so is coming up with $100 million to $200 million in a state budget that's stretched thin already.

Southern Oregon University has proposed eliminating entire majors to bring its finances back in line. Public school districts still haven't fully recovered from the cuts of the Great Recession.

By all means, study the notion of free tuition. But community colleges are struggling, too. Before burying them under thousands of new students, lawmakers might consider adequately funding them first.