A scholarship to help Oregon high school seniors pay for community college that had unintentionally been sending the largest grants to students with the least need will now give more money to low-income students. That change and other fixes to the program are part of an education bill passed by legislators during the February session. The change will impact thousands of low-income students, who make up the bulk of the scholarship applicants. 

The Oregon Promise was established in 2016 to encourage recent high school graduates and those pursuing their GED – a high school equivalency diploma – to attend Oregon’s community colleges. The scholarship paid between $1,000 and $4,000 to students to cover tuition costs not covered by another program, like federal Pell grants or the Oregon Opportunity grant. Both help low-income students. Any student with a 2.5 grade point average qualified for the Oregon Promise. As a “last dollar” scholarship, the program  was structured to cover tuition not paid for by other aid. 

Because many low-income students already receive Pell and other grants before the Oregon Promise kicks in, they had more of their tuition covered by aid and thus had received the minimum. Wealthier peers who hadn’t qualified for needs-based aid received more money

By 2021, despite nearly half of Oregon Promise grant recipients being low-income students, they were, on average, receiving about $350 less than their higher income peers each year. About 80% of the money in the Oregon Promise grant program went to students whose family income was too high for federal Pell grants and 40% went to students from families with a household income of more than $100,000, according to the state Higher Education Coordinating Commission. 

The commission had been trying to get the state Legislature to fix the program for several years, according to Juan Baez-Arevalo, director of the commission’s Office of Student Access and Completion

In 2019, the average cost of a year of community college tuition in Oregon was nearly $6,000.

Under the changes, the minimum award for the Oregon Promise will be doubled to $2,000 per year. The grade point average requirement has been lowered to 2.0, and students no longer need to pay a $50 copay each semester, saving them $150 per year. 

Students also will no longer need to complete a “First-Year Experience” requirement to remain eligible for the grant in their second year. First Year Experience was a program to develop study skills that community colleges needed to offer for Oregon Promise students. 

The scholarship will still be available after all other aid has  been applied to a student’s tuition and, despite efforts by the Higher Education Coordinating Commission to expand Oregon Promise to all of the state’s public universities, it is still only applicable to community college tuition.  

Oregon high school seniors and recent GED recipients interested in applying for the scholarship to attend a community college during the fall of 2022 will need to submit materials by June 1st to be considered.

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Alex Baumhardt, Oregon Capital Chronicle

Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.