Good Intentions, Tough Realities For Student Debt

Dec 21, 2016


Administrators at Linn Benton Community College say about 700 current students are taking advantage of the Oregon Promise program.
Credit Karen Richards

Oregon's legislature faces a tricky budget balancing act next year. For college aid, the governor recommends a focus on the student side of the equation. Given the budget's overall $1.7 billion dollar shortfall, it remains impossible to provide all the help Oregon's higher ed needs.


The Oregon Promise is a community college grant program now ending its first semester of implementation. This fall, it awarded tuition money to about six thousand students who met the requirements. Governor Kate Brown would like the legislature to fund it for two more years.


[ambi: school bell and students]


Some high schools have eagerly embraced the program:



Mona Stiffler
Credit Karen Richards

Stiffler: “We did a big college application week in November, and we had every senior apply for the Oregon Promise grant, and they applied for at least one college.”

Mona Stiffler is a counselor at Creswell High School. She's made sure all 95 seniors know how to fill out the federal student aid form, and are aware of the many college deadlines. It's a big help for all students:


Stiffler: “Even our top kids, like our 4.0 kids are like I don't know what to do, because either their parents have never been through the process or it's a very different process than when their parents went through it.”


Stiffler has been happy with Oregon Promise. She knows of at least five 2016 Creswell grads now attending Lane Community College through the program.


While Oregon Promise doesn't base awards on family income, it does fall short in some areas. Ben Cannon is Executive Director of the state's Higher Ed Coordinating Commission:


Cannon: “It doesn't cover any of the other costs of attendance, which are significant. Books, transportation, housing and other living costs. The Promise really just deals with the tuition side of the equation.”


Plus the tuition coverage isn't complete. Dale Stowell heard of some confused students at Linn Benton Community College, where he's Director of Advancement:

Dale Stowell
Credit Karen Richards

Stowell: “The phrase 'free community college' was thrown around and it's really not free. It probably funds 70% of tuition and fees.”

Oregon Promise reimburses tuition for up to 12 credits at the state's average rate. Stowell says most schools recommend a courseload of 15 credits.


The program doesn't ease costs at the state's public universities or colleges. For aid at those schools, students can tap Oregon Opportunity Grants. They direct money to the neediest students for all college expenses. The governor recommends increasing its scope in the next two years, from 80 to 85 thousand awards. But Opportunity Grants also have limitations. Ben Cannon:


Cannon: “That program phases out at a fairly low income level. So there are many middle income students and families who receive no benefit under the Oregon Opportunity Grant.”


The Creswell School District serves about 1,300 students.
Credit Karen Richards

Creswell's Mona Stiffler sees this first hand:

Stiffler: “It's our middle class kids that get nothing, because their parents make too much money but their parents are saying 'We're not paying for your college' but the state expects them to contribute something, so those are the kids I worry about.”


Cannon would like to see Oregon offer at least as much help per student as the national average.


Cannon: “That would require about another $50 milion a biennium. That would be a very good start, but it still would not meet the entire need.”


He says the current state aid budget is $150 million dollars.


The governor's recommendations try to give students some choices, but Governor Brown wants to leave contributions to public institutions the same, a move university presidents say is essentially a cut. Cannon agrees:


Cannon: “Flat funding at both the community college and the university level would likely result in tuition increases for both sectors. I think we'll have to work hard to keep those increases below 10 percent for the first year.”


Dale Stowell says Linn Benton is already fighting to keep tuition steady:


Stowell: “The last time that we discussed tuition policy, we set ourselves on a trajectory to try to have a regular tuition increase, but a modest tuition increase, rather than going zero, zero, zero, ten.”


He says the plan is for a five percent hike next fall, but they have see what the final state budget looks like.


The Oregon Promise is only the second program of its kind in the country, after Tennessee.


President Obama proposed a national program for two years of free community college in his 2015 State of the Union address.


[President Obama: “That's why I'm sending this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college. To zero!”]


The idea lingers in the legislature, with a “Playbook” released in September, but a new administration and Congress means uncertainty for the bipartisan goal.


Cannon says the Oregon Promise program is popular:


Cannon: “We get calls from other state policymakers, from researchers, from folks at the U.S. Department of Education. There's been a lot of interest in potential replication, interest in a potential national program.”


He says it's exciting to be part of a bigger conversation about how to make college more affordable.


The status of Oregon's aid programs remains unclear. The Oregon Promise website cautions its funding is subject to legislative approval, and more information will be available in the spring. Teachers, state leaders and universities will wait and see. High school students have to fill out forms now for programs that may or may not be able to assist when it's time for them to pay for school.



Oregon Promise Grant website.

Oregon Opportunity Grant website