SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon lawmakers in both chambers are making it easier for a large cohort of students to pay for their higher education under two bills they passed Thursday, despite criticism the programs could be too costly or unfairly favor some students over others.
Under a measure that was given overwhelming bipartisan support by senators, some Oregon students would qualify for tuition waivers at community colleges. House lawmakers also gave approval to a contentious bill that allows some students living in the U.S. without legal permission to apply for and receive state financial aid.
Both drew pushback from legislators who said the state's budget couldn't afford the additional costs while others pointed to the limited number of scholarships available to students in the U.S. legally.
Advocates for the community college bill touted a program known as the "last-dollar scholarship," which means the proposal will fill in whatever tuition federal and state dollars don't cover.
Not all students would qualify for the waivers. Some of the stipulations include requiring students to have achieved at least a 2.5 grade point average in high school. They also would have to have applied for and accepted all federal and state grants available to them and would be on the hook for a $50 fee.
"Without any kind of training or any kind of education out of high school, we all know there's only one real path, a path that leads to poverty. And these days poverty is getting pretty expensive," said Beaverton Democrat Sen. Mark Hass, who carried the bill in the Senate.
Though lawmakers from both sides of the aisle gave the measure their support, some still expressed concern about the state's ability to handle the additional costs.
"I remain deeply concerned that once this bill and its incumbent escalating costs comes into effect it simply isn't going to be sustainable," said Sen. Betsy Johnson, a Scappoose Democrat.
The measure passed 28-1. It now heads to the House.
The student aid bill in the House has also drawn criticism it could put too much strain on the state budget since around 40 percent of the 120,000 students eligible for financial aid actually receive a grant. Lawmakers decided two years ago to allow Oregon high school graduates to pay in-state tuition at public universities regardless of their immigration status, but currently, only legal residents could qualify for state-funded scholarships.
While several Republicans supported the 2013 bill allowing in-state tuition regardless of immigration status, the vote to give them scholarships fell along party lines. Several Republicans who supported in-state tuition measure said they'd told their constituents that the affected students wouldn't be eligible for taxpayer-funded scholarships.
Because there are a limited number of Opportunity Grants, students in the country illegally will claim scholarships that would otherwise go to legal residents, said Rep. Mark Johnson, a Hood River Republican who supported the 2013 bill.
The measure passed 34-25 and now goes to the Senate.