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A Hand Up 

An income cap hits the Oregon Promise — a program helping more than 550 C.O students go to school

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Central Oregon's employers continually lament a need for a more educated workforce. With the help of Oregon Promise, over 550 area students are getting there. For this biennium, however, the program includes an income cap.

Ingrid Sanchez is a second-year student at the Madras campus of Central Oregon Community College, working toward an associate degree in early childhood education. Before she got to college, Sanchez says the staff at Madras High School encouraged her and her fellow students to learn about a then-new program, helping Oregon students pay for a higher education.

Sanchez was already well aware of the program, called Oregon Promise—so much so that when her school held an assembly aimed at informing students about it, Sanchez was one of the speakers. She also became one of the program's recipients, helping her to move through college without being saddled with mammoth debt. Sanchez hopes to become a teacher after finishing her education.

"The Oregon Promise motivated me to take the first step in seeking out scholarships and other financial help so that I could achieve my educational goals locally," Sanchez tells the Source Weekly.

The college debt conundrum

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t's no secret that paying for college is an uphill battle. Perhaps more than ever before, college hopefuls face two sobering realities: Increased student indebtedness and a decrease in college affordability. As of 2017, student loan debt in the U.S. is at $1.45 trillion, according to a study from the Institute for Higher Education Policy published in March of this year. Over the last 10 years, college costs have risen 45 percent, while during the same period, income for Americans overall has decreased by 7 percent. The study found that 70 percent of colleges were unaffordable for lower- and middle-income students who were unwilling or unable to incur debt.

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College affordability has been a persistent issue for decades—especially for those coming from financially challenging circumstances. Public efforts to expand and extend accessibility and affordability of college go back to President Lyndon Johnson's signing of the first Federal Higher Education Act in 1965. This legislation introduced the federal student loan system, and laid the foundation for numerous federal financial aid programs. It was a major step in opening doors to post-secondary education for many lower income and disadvantaged students across the nation.

States have also provided resources in varying degrees over the years, and Oregon has been no exception—but opportunities have ebbed and flowed in response to availability of public resources. In 2015, the Oregon Legislature took a step toward addressing the high cost of higher ed by passing Senate Bill 81, becoming what's now known as Oregon Promise.

So what is Oregon Promise, and what does it do?

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regon Promise is a grant program set up to help reduce or eliminate tuition expenses for recent high school graduates (or qualified GED recipients) who plan to attend one of Oregon's 17 community colleges. Naturally, recipients have to meet certain specified criteria. In addition to the requirement of being a recent high school graduate (or GED recipient), original criteria included being an Oregon resident for at least 12 months prior to applying, having a 2.5 cumulative high school GPA or equivalent (or if a GED recipient, a score of 145 or above on each test), enrolling in an Oregon community college within six months of finishing high school (or obtaining a GED) and plans to attend college at least half-time.

Prospects also fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid or an Oregon Student Aid Application, listing at least one Oregon community college. Oregon Promise is considered a "last dollar in" grant program, meaning students must have applied for all other potential financial aid, including Federal Pell Grants and Oregon Opportunity Grants.

In its initial year of funding, Oregon Promise provided approximately $12 million in grants, with over 6,800 students statewide receiving full or partial Oregon Promise grants. Minimum grants for the 2016-2017 school year were $1,000, with maximum grants of $3,248—the average tuition for a full time student at an Oregon community college. In the 2017-18 school year, the minimum continued to be $1,000, but the maximum award increased to $3,540. There's also a total credit limit of 90 credits—meaning once students have completed (or attempted) 90 college credits, they're no longer eligible for Oregon Promise.

Sanchez says the application process was relatively painless. Along with receiving a COCC Foundation Scholarship, her Oregon Promise award for the 2016-17 school year was $1,000. Her award this year is $750, as she will have reached the 90-credit threshold after winter term.

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Targeting a lower-income bracket: A budgeting story

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ince its inception, the Oregon Legislature has made a few changes. The biggest one of note: the addition of an income eligibility requirement. Reports and studies from Oregon Promise's inaugural year found that a majority of recipients were from higher income brackets, in large part due to the "last dollar in" requirement.

Because there was no income eligibility requirement in the first iteration of the program, it meant any eligible student could receive an Oregon Promise grant. Many within the higher education arena saw this as a contradiction to the very heart of the issue of college affordability.

The income eligibility requirement also came into play as the 2017 legislature struggled with budgeting aspects of the program. To continue funding Oregon Promise for the 2017-19 biennium, the legislature estimated it would need $48 million. When the session ended, the budget allotted for Oregon Promise was $40 million. It was a shortfall that brought some disappointment—but it kept the program alive, and prompted the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, the body overseeing the Oregon Promise program, to institute cost controls, including financial eligibility criteria.

The new criteria factors in a student's Expected Family Contribution. For 2017-2018, the HECC determined that the EFC limit would be $18,000—so if an applicant's EFC is above that level, they won't be eligible for an Oregon Promise grant. The new requirement doesn't apply to continuing students.

The Impact in Central Oregon

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licia Moore, COCC's Dean of Student and Enrollment Services, says 566 COCC students were recipients of Oregon Promise grants last year. Seeing more local students move through the educational pipeline couldn't come soon enough for the local business community, which continually laments a shortage of educated workers in the region.

Jamie Christman of the Bend Chamber of Commerce is executive vice president of community affairs and executive director of Leadership Bend. Christman says Oregon Promise—especially now with the required economic component—"ensures more opportunities are available to our recent high school graduates who need financial assistance and helps remove barriers for these students to become an engaged part of the workforce." Ensuring the local workforce has the tools necessary for success has been a priority for the Bend Chamber and its partners.

"This (Oregon Promise) works right in step with the Bend Chamber's workforce development initiative, Youth Career Connect, helping students and young adults pursue meaningful job opportunities while businesses seek to involve students in a skilled talent pipeline," says Christman.

To ensure that "pipeline" is successful, one of the initial provisions in the inaugural Oregon Promise legislation was a requirement that students who wished to receive a second year of grant funds would participate in a college-led student success initiative. The Legislature provided one-time funding to community colleges to establish retention programs.

At COCC, that played out as a mandatory first year experience program. According to Moore, initial numbers show that COCC Oregon Promise students who completed the student success program had high numbers of retention and course completion. Based on feedback she's gotten thus far, Moore says Oregon Promise had a positive impact on the decision to go to college. Coupled with that first year experience, it has had a definite impact on student success. It was, Moore says, "the true intent of Oregon Promise and I'm glad that it seems to be playing out that way."

A Student's Perspective

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met Ingrid Sanchez, a sweet, diligent student, when she took part in my state and local government course at COCC. She continues to live at home with her family in Madras, where she was born and raised, attending school full-time and working at the Kids Club of Jefferson County.

For Sanchez, one of the program's earliest recipients, it's been a positive experience—though she says she's learned a lot along the way. Oregon Promise has a strong communication aspect, says Sanchez, who gets texts and emails that update her on her grant. On the flip side, Sanchez said she was confused at first about the amount of the grants, and how various factors would impact that. She now understands why she received the minimum grant (her scholarship), adding that she feels fortunate that she received what she did. Up next: funding the next part of her education.

"I am applying to George Fox University to form part of their 2019 teaching cohort program here in Central Oregon, while also seeking scholarships and such to help fund further education to fulfill my dreams of becoming a teacher," Sanchez says.

While the future of Oregon Promise may not be set in stone, it appears to have sturdy legs and the support of the community. And for Sanchez, it's helped ensure that she achieves her dream of becoming a future educator—without incurring an insurmountable amount of debt.

*Editors Note:* In the original printed version of this article, we incorrectly stated new requirements for the Oregon Promise. It should instead read, "The requirement to apply within six months of graduation from high school or the GED completion is not a new requirement; it was in the originating legislation for the program. What is new with legislation this year is that students in certain circumstances may be granted waivers to this requirement. For more information, see our fact sheet on the legislative changes here.




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