Students chime in on funding issue

Forty students lobbied in Salem yesterday, telling lawmakers personal stories to emphasize the importance of finding $12.4 million to fund the Oregon Opportunity Grant in addition to the already-funded tuition freeze.

The Oregon Student Association, which organized the lobby and provided yearbooks illustrating the impact of budget cuts, coached student leaders throughout the day.

“We’ve been in this building all session spouting facts and figures,” OSA Organizing Director Melissa Unger said. “They don’t need facts and figures today. They need personal stories.”

In a meeting with Rep. Chip Shields, representatives from the Associated Students of Portland State University, the student government, talked about how Oregon’s budget woes have impacted them.

President-Elect Erin Devaney is eligible for the opportunity grant, but did not receive it.

Vice President-elect Molly Woon has watched tuition rise and tried to make up the difference in longer hours at work. “You can’t keep up. You either go into debt or you work so much you can’t get up early in the morning to go to committee hearings,” she joked, referring to a meeting she had missed after her Monday night shift.

Though her parents are middle class, “The FAFSA apparently thinks we make a lot,” senator Amanda Newberg said, adding that she’s incurred $14,000 in debt after just one year at PSU.

In a Ways and Means hearing for the Oregon Student Assistance Commission, which distributes the state’s only need-based grant, student government representatives testified for the importance of the opportunity grant, referencing Governor Ted Kulongoski’s plan to increase funding so that all eligible students can receive it. Currently, 70 percent of eligible applicants receive the grant.

The two budgets under consideration by the committee both provide $33.5 million in state funds to freeze tuition for 2005-2006, but do not fully fund the opportunity grant. Legislators cautioned students to compromise.

“The best scenario may be the one where everybody goes away not feeling that they got everything they wanted but not terribly disappointed,” said Richard Devlin, chair of the Subcommittee on Education.

However, some students argued that even full funding for the grant is settling for less.

Tony McCown, student body president at Lane Community College and OOG recipient, pointed out that the grant was originally intended to provide 100 percent of tuition. Today, though tuition has risen and eligibility has been restricted, the grant covers 11 percent.

Oregon has a terrible affordability rating, McCown said. Providing the grant to all eligible applicants “is a way for Oregon to come up in the ranks.”

Since a tuition freeze is more beneficial to middle-class constituents than the grant, it tends to be more popular politically.

But several representatives told PSU students they supported funding the grant.

“We’re hearing that the biggest need is to fund the Oregon Opportunity Grant,” Rep. Steve March said. “It gets a lot of people in the door.”