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“What is exciting to us about the idea is that it signals that the state understands there needs to be significant reinvestment in community colleges in some way, shape or form,” said Mary Spilde, the president of Lane Community College in Eugene, Ore., where in-state students pay $93 per credit hour. Back in 1969-70, baby boomers paid $6 per credit hour - about $37 in today’s money, adjusted for inflation.

Tennessee and Oregon are looking at the “last-dollar in” model, where the state picks up the tuition not covered by other forms of aid. Because students from poor families often get their tuition covered by Pell Grants and other programs, the state money would disproportionately help those from more comfortable backgrounds.

“If you’re paying for two years for everybody, then you’re paying for students whose families can afford to do it,” said Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas. “And is that your best use of dollars within the public interest?”

There are other concerns. Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, generally praised the bills, but said students are more likely to be successful if they have “skin in the game” and pay something toward their education.

Patricia Schechter, a Portland State University professor active in the faculty union, worries that students will be induced into taking the community college route - “arguably against their interests” - and about the effect on public universities, whose students won’t get a tuition break.

“We start competing for first-year students in a way that seems a little unfair if they can go somewhere for free,” she said. “It doesn’t address the creeping costs of higher ed. It just diverts them.”

Hass, the Oregon state senator, countered that the university presidents he’s spoken with, including Portland State’s, support the idea.

“There’s an old saying,” he said of the criticism. “You can marshal an army to preserve the status quo.”