Oregon scholarship for community college disproportionately going to wealthier students

The Oregon Promise grant is supposed to help high school seniors with the costs of community college, but 80% of the money is going to students with the least need

By: - January 18, 2022 6:00 am

Salem-Keizer High School graduation. The Oregon Department of Education is recommending changes to the state’s graduation requirements. (Courtesy/Salem-Keizer School District)

Money to help Oregon high school seniors pay for community college has been disproportionately flowing to students with the least financial need. 

At a Senate Education Committee meeting Jan. 12, Juan Baez-Arevalo, the director of the Office of Student Access and Completion at the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, told lawmakers that the Oregon Promise grant needed changes to help more low-income students get the help. 

Currently, 80% of the money is going to students whose family income is too high for federal Pell grants. Such grants are awarded to those coming from households with income of less than $50,000. 

About 40% of Oregon Promise dollars are going to students from families with a household income of more than $100,000, according to Baez-Arevalo.

The Oregon Promise grant was created in 2016 to encourage Oregon high school graduates and those pursuing their GED – a high school equivalency diploma – to attend the state’s community colleges by making it more affordable.

During the 2020-21 school year, more than $14.5 million in Oregon Promise grants were dispersed to nearly 9,000 students.

It is not a needs-based scholarship, like the Oregon Opportunity grant, which gets awarded to the lowest income students in the state. Any high school senior or recent GED recipient can apply for an Oregon Promise grant as long as they have at least a 2.5 grade point average or score at least 145 on their GED exam. They must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and get in their grant application during their senior year or right after completing their final GED exam. 

Nearly half of Oregon Promise grant recipients are low-income students, but they are receiving, on average, about $350 less than their higher income peers each year.

More low-income students are receiving the grants minimum award amount, $1,000, than higher income students. 

This is because the Oregon Promise is a “last dollar” grant program. It kicks in after all other grants and scholarships have been awarded, like the Oregon Opportunity grant and the federal Pell grant, and covers portions of what’s left. 

The purchasing power of the award has been eroded, particularly for the lowest income students.

– Juan Baez-Arevalo, director, Office of Student Access and Completion at the Higher Education Coordinating Commission

The maximum award amount has grown over the years as tuition costs rise, to more than $4,000, but the minimum award of $1,000 has stayed the same. 

Students pay up to $150 per year in copays to receive the grant. For those who receive the grant’s minimum, disproportionately the lowest income students, it could mean they take in only $850 a year from the grant.

“The purchasing power of the award has been eroded,” Baez-Arevalo told lawmakers, “particularly for the lowest income students.”

He proposed changing the law so that the grant’s minimum amount would increase each year, like the maximum amount does, to keep up with rising tuition costs. He also proposed that they get rid of the copay and lower the minimum GPA requirement to 2.0.

The Regional Education Laboratory Northwest, part of the federal Institute for Education Sciences, found that lowering the minimum GPA requirement would increase participation in the grant program among low-income students, students of color, male students and students who receive special education services.

The typical Oregon Promise recipient is female and Hispanic, according to the Higher Education Coordinating Commission.

Despite increasing access and affordability for community college, the Oregon Promise grant has not created large increases in community college enrollment among the state’s high school seniors. In the 2020-21 school year, only about 5% of all community college students in the state received an Oregon Promise grant, according to the Higher Education Coordinating Commission. This is because most community college students in Oregon today are not coming from high schools, but are 25 years or older.

During the 2021 legislative session, Baez-Arevalo and the Office of Student Access and Completion had proposed updating the eligibility requirements and expanding the Oregon Promise grant to high school seniors and recent GED recipients planning to attend state public universities, Oregon Health and Science University or any Oregon-based, accredited, not-for-profit institution of higher education. It was not approved.

In an interview in November, Baez-Arevalo told the Capital Chronicle he and his office had been bringing up needed changes to the grant for at least the last four years.

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Alex Baumhardt
Alex Baumhardt

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.