Oregon’s Broken Promise: State defunds a lifeline for college students

In the 2019-20 academic year, more than 275 McNary High School students applied for the Oregon Promise Grant, which supplies graduating seniors with up to two years of community college tuition. 

Now, an unknown number of those students are on their own. 

“We can only tell how many students apply for the grants, we can’t disclose how many are awarded for privacy reasons,” said Rochelle Farris, college and career specialist at McNary High School. 

Each year, the Oregon Legislature approves grant money for the Oregon Promise Grant, which pays community college tuition for high school graduates with at 2.5 grade point average or higher. As a result of the economic devastation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, legislators approved moving the funding elsewhere at a special session held in August.

Not every grant recipient lost their scholarship, but the budget for the grant was reduced by $3.6 million and more than 1,000 scholarships were revoked. The students who lost their scholarship have an Expected Family Contribution (EFC) of $22,000 or more. The EFC is determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

“Students who qualified for the Oregon Promise and then had their award recently revoked will still have financial aid available through their FAFSA,” said Farris. “Unfortunately, for most of these students, it will mean Federal Student Loans.”

According to the Higher Education Coordinating Commission’s (HECC) website, the $3.6 million is being relocated to the 2020 Rebalance Plan– an initiative (Continued from Page A1)

being reallocated to the 2020 Rebalance Plan– an initiative to close the budget shortfall caused by COVID-19.

“In response to this cut, we really only have one viable option, and that is to cap the program on the basis of expected family contribution (EFC) level,” an HECC spokesperson said in an email to Oregon House Rep. Bill Post. He reached out to the HECC on behalf of constituents that had questions about the cuts to the grant budget.

“While we are able to preserve the Oregon Promise grants for the lowest income levels, the new budget limitation to Oregon Promise is expected to impact approximately 1,000 students who have been previously told they were awarded the grant,” the statement continued. “We know, despite the fact that we are clear in our communications that award status is dependent on legislative appropriations, that students have made plans.”

While this lumps yet another unusual and unfortunate situation on the Class of 2020, the alternatives are taking out student loans or taking a gap year. Farris thinks colleges and universities will experience low-enrollment this year and ramp up recruiting efforts for the Class of 2021.

“The Class of 2021 may feel discouraged right now. However, I believe that all colleges and universities are looking for ways to bring students to their campuses and you will see that in the ways they will recruit over this next year,” Farris said.

As students transition to online distance learning, the temptation to coast through their senior year will intensify, but Farris warns seniors to stay vigilant.

“Class of 2021, your senior year may not be ideal, but I feel like you will have a lot of opportunities as you look toward your college options. The important thing is to not get discouraged. You still need to do the hard work that is necessary during a traditional senior fall,” Farris said.

For families who pursue alternative methods of payment for community college this year, there is some hope. 

“The state often changes requirements year by year,” Farris said. “Some years there is a high EFC limit, other times all students who graduate with a 2.5 GPA qualify.”

The HECC said there is potential for the Class of 2020 to get grant money next year, though it is unlikely.

“It has been the case in the past that if a student qualified for the Promise, but was not awarded because they did not meet the EFC, and they attend a community college, we award the student in their second year. This is also entirely dependent on legislative appropriations and we can in no way project or commit in advance that will happen. In fact, it seems more unlikely this time due to the expected difficult 2022-23 budget cycle.”

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