Oregon University System supports opportunity grant

A coalition of higher-education organizations gathered in Portland to voice their support of a plan drafted by the Oregon Student Assistance Commission (OSAC) to significantly enhance the Oregon Opportunity Grant, Wednesday.

The grant, instituted more than two decades ago is Oregon’s only state-funded, need-based financial aid program, and has served more than 30,000 students with an average of $1,200 per academic year per student. 1,500 Portland State University students received awards, a total of $1.6 million, which amounted to a little less than 1 percent of the total financial aid dollars disbursed.

The OSAC’s plan is to increase that amount. Right now the Oregon Opportunity Grant covers approximately 11 percent of the cost of education, the OSAC’s plan is to increase that to 15 percent by the 2005-2007 biennium, which will require $27 million in General Fund money from the state.

“That would mean another substantial grant program, and those students who qualify are also going to get a Pell Grant,” said Sam Collie executive director of Admissions, Records and Financial Aid at Portland State.

Increasing the size of the grant is just one part of the three-step plan. First the OSAC wants to “fund all eligibles.” This year an estimated 33 percent of eligible low-income Oregonians will not receive the grant due to a lack of funds. By the 2003-2005 biennium, OSAC wants to bridge that gap, which will cost an estimated $35.6 million in general fund money.

The third step is to standardize the income eligibility requirements for dependent and independent students by the 2007-2009 biennium. This adjustment will cost an estimated $20 million in general funds.

With the state budget in crisis, a program expansion is a difficult thing to convince legislators of. The Oregon Community College Association, Oregon Independent Colleges Association, Oregon Student Association, OSAC and the Oregon University System (OUS) are working together to convince legislators during the next session that this program is worth expanding.

“This is a very important and direct investment in the workforce of the 21st century,” said president of Portland Community College Jess Carreon. “The issue crosses all lines, two-year, four-year, public, private,” Carreon said.

The chance of this plea for funding falling on deaf ears during a recession is increased by the OUS’s plan to increase their funding to 80 percent of the national average.

Richard Jarvis, OUS chancellor acknowledged there is a risk in attempting both programs at once.

“The only way you avoid that risk is to communicate the total demand,” Jarvis said.

The demand for grants has increased dramatically, nearly doubling in the past five years from 79,000 in 1997-1998 to an estimated 116,600 applicants in 2002-2003.

While demand has increased, funding has decreased. The recent passing of Measure 19 significantly reduced the amount of funds from the Oregon Education Endowment available for the grant, nearly negating a $500 million increase of General Fund money during the last legislative session.

“There are a combination of funds that are pulled together to fund the grant, that was a piece of that,” said Jeff Svejcar, executive director for OSAC, of Measure 19’s impact, “that has been foreclosed.”

If the three-year income tax increase doesn’t pass during the next election, the grant could face another $1.6 million in reductions. The administrators of the grant have yet to decide what action they will take in case of that shortfall.

Collie, a member of the Oregon Opportunity Grant Advisory Committee, said that the committee will recommend that the grant is reduced per student, as opposed to reducing the number of students eligible.

If the eligibility was reduced, students who already received funds for fall term would have those funds revoked, which could mean a $4,000 deficit for students who attend private colleges.

“A 100 dollar-a-term reduction is a better solution,” Collie said.

That reduction won’t go unnoticed.

“This year the amount that students got was frozen, knowing that there was not enough money to go around,” said Collie.

If the ballot measure fails, an additional $600,000 in federal funding could be lost to the grant.

“That’s a real kicker that the federal share would be reduced if the total funding was reduced to a certain level,” Collie said.