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By the end of February, OSAC reported that nearly
5,000 students who had filled out their Free Application for
Federal Student Aid forms after the December 1 cutoff date
had qualified for aid, but that there wouldn’t be any money
for them.That number is expected to continue to increase
through the spring. In addition, as a cost-saving measure,
OSAC decided it would not award Opportunity Grants this
academic year to any students who had not received an award
in the fall—even if they had filled out their paperwork prior
to December 1, and had been told they were going to get aid
for winter and spring. And all students receiving awards this
winter and spring will see their amount reduced, by $80 for
full-time students, and $40 for part-time students.
“It’s been kind of a roller coaster,” said OSAC Executive
Director Dennis Johnson. “What it does is rattle confidence
in terms of the resources that will be available in the future.”
Still, Johnson said he didn’t expect any more changes in this
biennium. “It’s going to be very, very tight, but I don’t expect
any additional cuts,” he said. But depending on what the
legislature does with the 2009-11 budget, OSACmay have
to revise the program, by reducing the award amounts, or by
changing its eligibility requirements to serve fewer students,
Johnson said.The good news, he added, is that federal Pell
grants and tax credits will be increasing substantially over the
next couple of years; those measures should help tomake up
for at least some of the state shortfalls.
Still, administrators said they are concerned about the
signals such cutbacks could send. “The worry is that with not
even a year under our belt, we have had to back away fromour
promise,” said Camille Preus, commissioner of community
colleges and workforce development.
No one knows howmany students will choose not to enroll
or will drop out because of this year’s reduction in aid. But, said
Mary Spilde, president of Lane Community College in Eugene,
“The lives of many of our students are a house of cards. When
you’re living on the edge, it just takes one little piece and the
whole house of cards comes down.”
The vast majority of those who qualified too late to receive
the Opportunity Grants this year—4,300 of 5,000—are
community college students.That’s to be expected, since
community college students typically make decisions about
schooling later than students at four-year schools. But even
those who had planned in advance not to attend fall term, and
to return to school for winter term, have lost out.
“It means less for rent. I’ll probably have to workmore,”
said a disappointed Nicole Padron, 26, a student at Lane
Community College, when she heard news of the cutbacks
from a reporter. Padron had taken off the fall term to deal
with her recently deceasedmother’s estate, but was counting
on the $600 Opportunity Grant she had been awarded to help
her through the winter and spring terms. Padron, a straight-A
student, is studying to be a veterinary technician, and said her
textbooks for winter term alone had cost her $465. Despite the
loss of aid, she said she planned to remain in school so she can
eventually earnmore than the $10.60 an hour she is currently
paid in her part-time job working with disabled adults. “I don’t
want to be uneducated forever,” she said.
Oregon has no state sales tax, and a ballot measure passed
in 1990 significantly lowered property taxes, leaving the state
heavily dependent on income tax for its
revenue. Higher education budgets took
huge hits in the years that followed, forcing
program cuts. For 15 years, the four-year
public institutions failed tomeet enrollment
goals, said George Pernsteiner. “That’s one
of the reasons that Oregon’s educational
attainment level is so low,” he said.
Governor Kulongoski has articulated a
set of ambitious long-term educational goals
for the state that would raise those levels.
According to those goals, by 2025, 40 percent
of Oregon adults should have a bachelor’s
degree or higher; another 40 percent should
have at least an associate’s degree or other
technical credential; and the remaining 20
percent should have at least a high school
diploma. Kulongoski’s belief that higher
education should be made accessible isn’t a surprise to those
who know his background: He was raised in an orphanage, and
attended college on the GI Bill.
During his January 12th State of the State address, delivered
at the beginning of Oregon’s 2009-11 legislative session,
Kulongoski repeated his support for education, which he said
is the state’s way out of the recession and toward prosperity.
“If we’re going to turn unemployment checks into paychecks,
the state must invest in our human infrastructure,” said
Kulongoski, who talked about building a “protective wall”
around funding for education.
Kulongoski’s proposed budget for 2009-11 included $163
million for the Opportunity Grant program.That would
represent a substantial increase from the current level, though
still far shy of the $250million it would cost to fully fund it.
State officials said they were hopeful that a federal stimulus
package might help keep the program, as well as higher
education, whole, even as the state economy worsens.
In early January, as they prepared for their session,
By factoring in a
reasonable amount
that students could
be expected to
contribute, education
advocates overcame
common objections
to increasing
financial aid.
Mayra Gomez, a first-generation college student from Hermiston, Oregon, says the
new student aid measure enables her to work fewer hours at a part-time job.