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SALEM — Oregon will launch an experiment with tuition waivers for some high school graduates to attend community college.

Lawmakers approved the project, known as the Oregon Promise and modeled on a similar program that began in Tennessee a year ago.

While chairman of the Senate Education Committee last year, Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, got the committee to sponsor what became Senate Bill 81. Although it won’t resolve every problem in Oregon, he said, “it will help students stay out of debt, it will help employees find qualified people, and I think it will help Oregonians feel better about their state.”

There are some qualifiers for the program, which will start in the 2016-17 school year.

Recent high school graduates will be eligible for tuition waivers if they earned at least a 2.5 grade point average, are Oregon residents, and apply to community college no more than six months after graduation. They must pay $50 to the community college per term and seek federal and state financial aid they are eligible for.

“We are saying to our young people that if you finish high school, keep up your grades and stay out of trouble, we promise to provide you with an opportunity to reach the middle class on your own,” Hass said.

The program is also capped at $10 million for the two-year budget cycle.

Despite the cap – and her vote for the bill – Sen. Betsy Johnson said the Oregon Promise could be a future budget-buster.

“I remain deeply concerned that once this bill and its escalating costs come into full effect, it simply is not going to be sustainable,” said Johnson, a Democrat from Scappoose who sits on the Legislature’s joint budget committee.

The bill passed 28-1 in the Senate and 48-12 in the House.

“This is not intended to reach all students,” said Rep. Mark Johnson, R-Hood River, the bill’s floor manager in the House. “But the status quo is clearly not working.”

Rep. Tobias Read, D-Beaverton, said the state budget is paying in other ways for people who cannot afford the advanced training they need for higher-skilled and better-paying jobs.

“People who simply don’t have a lot of opportunities because of their lack of access (to post-secondary education) are costing this state money in social services and a lack of income taxes generated by their employment,” Read said.

“This bill makes a lot of sense from a financial point of view when you consider the leverage (in federal student aid) that it generates.”

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