Low Income Students In Oregon Struggle To Afford Higher Education

May 10, 2021

 

An illustration of Marichelle Gurski, Kathleen Rodríguez Pérez and Yoyo.
Credit Lauren Ibanez

The cost to attend college isn’t just tuition. Books, housing, food, learning accommodations and other expenses all add up. While paying for college anywhere in the country isn’t cheap, it's especially difficult in Oregon, where financial aid is significantly lower than some of its neighboring states. 

Yoyo is a high school junior in Eugene. We’re not using her last name to protect her privacy. Although Yoyo still has another year of high school, she’s already concerned about how she’s going to afford college. The 17-year-old works at a local Subway shop and her mom has a full-time job. Still, it’s hard to make ends meet and she doesn’t have a college savings. 

And Yoyo sometimes has to explain to her friends the challenges her family faces.

“They just think that, ‘Oh, like, my dad is where he is because he worked hard,’ bullcrap. Because my mom works her butt off all the time. So hard work has nothing to do with it,” she said. “And I think that's the biggest misconception that people think, oh, if you just work hard, you'll get there. No, that's not true at all. Because you see people working hard all the time, and still barely being able to provide for their families.”

Because of these experiences, Yoyo has already developed a strong work ethic. She’s enrolled in a high school pre-med program and she’s taking a college prep course so she’ll be prepared to navigate college applications and scholarships.  

One of her goals after college is to find more financial stability.

“One thing that keeps me going — my mom tells me all the time — just because you grew up poor, doesn't mean you have to be poor in the future,” said Yoyo. 

For Yoyo, receiving higher education is way out of financial hardship. Yet, despite scholarships and financial aid, the pathway to affording college as a low income student isn’t easy. 

 

 

Yoyo sits in her car and puts on her Subway bandana before driving to work.
Credit Melorie Begay / KLCC News

  

Costs Beyond Tuition

Marichelle Gurski is a senior at Oregon State University Cascades. She was told in middle school that she has dyslexia. It’s difficult for her to concentrate when reading on electronic screens, and she needs a larger print. She also tends to switch around certain letters, like i and e, when she writes. But Gurski was never officially diagnosed because her family couldn’t afford to take the test. 

She sometimes struggles to receive the accommodations she needs to complete assignments. 

“That's constantly always what it's been like with my dyslexia is, ‘can I afford to have that disability? Can I afford to do those things?’” said Gurski. “And like, ‘do I actually have dyslexia even though I don't have a piece of paper from, you know, some institution or some psychologists to say I do?’” 

As a student leader, Gurski’s spent her final months at school advocating for her university to create scholarships so low income students can pay for diagnoses and access to disability resources as well as spearheaded a project to put free menstrual products on campus.

 

More Federal Financial Aid Could Be On Its Way

To help ease the cost of college, over $12 billion is spent on financial aid across 49 states for more than 4.5 million students each year. Sarah Pingel is the senior policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States. She explained that states are trying to pass policies this year that would make higher education more affordable. 

So far, Pingel said there are 42 states considering over 200 bills related to financial aid programs in the 2021 legislative sessions. But only 22 of those bills have passed thus far. A lot of the bills are focused on expanding workforce training programs, which typically serve students who may not go to college right after high school, as well as adjusting college eligibility criteria. 

“Most of the enacted legislation at this point in the year deals with adjusting state financial aid program eligibility in response to the pandemic,” said Pingel. “So for example, states with merit aid programs where students weren't able to access a testing date on time to take their ACT [or] their SAT to demonstrate that minimum test score.”

Many states have yet to determine the amount of financial aid they will be able to distribute because they don’t yet have an approved budget for next year. But the prospects are good that financial aid funding will go up. 

“Based on what happened in the 2008 recession, while general appropriations to campuses generally tends downwards during recessions, appropriations to financial aid programs actually usually go up,” said Pingel. “Because students have more need for aid and for support. And legislators want to be able to kind of make good on the programs that they have in place and be able to fund students who qualify for the aid.” 

An Oregon Bill Redesign Could Ease The Burden

In 2019, Oregon ranked 25th among states for the total state financial aid per full time equivalent student. That’s according to an annual report released by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association

According to the report, Oregon ranked 34th in the country for the amount of funding the state provides institutions and distributes in financial aid. The largest financial aid programs in the state come from the Oregon Opportunity Grant and the Oregon Promise grant.

The Oregon Promise grant is a so-called ‘last dollar program’ that covers tuition costs for students above what they receive from the Pell and Oregon Opportunity grants. Low income students are more likely to have their tuition fully covered with Pell and Oregon Opportunity grants. Since other costs — as housing, food and books — are not factored into the current funding model for the Oregon Promise grant, the grant typically skips over low-income students, and is given to students from wealthier households. 

In 2018-2019, about 39% of the total Oregon Promise grant dollars went to students whose FAFSA indicated that their family income was likely over $100,000 per year. Only 18% of those promise dollars went to students from families whose FAFSA indicated income below $50,000 per year. That means about two thirds of the total program dollars went to families above the Oregon median income level. 

Additionally, this funding has a $50 per-term copay. So if a student were to receive the minimum amount of $1,000, it would actually be $850 once adjusted for the three-term copay.

In order to help meet the needs of Oregon students, state legislators have worked to redesign the financial aid system for higher education. The initial version of HB 2093 was aimed at ensuring financial aid would be predominantly awarded on a need basis. It could have provided enough financial aid to cover the cost of attendance, as well as books, housing and transportation. 

The model is based on Washington state’s 2019 financial aid redesign. It also would have allowed funding to be combined with federal grants, like the Pell grant. 

The challenge with redesigning financial aid is that there just isn’t enough funding to meet the need, however. The redesign, which began before the pandemic, was estimated to cost an additional $290.6 million in financial aid this biennium. But Governor Kate Brown's proposed budget does not include those increases. 

The bill has since been amended by the legislature to focus on making the Oregon Promise grant more equitable. 

If passed, students could use the grant at any institution, not just community colleges, and the GPA requirement for accessing the program would change from 2.5 to 2.0. The minimum award amount would double to $2,000, and that amount would be indexed to go up with tuition increases. The bill would also eliminate the co-pay associated with the Promise grant and accelerated learning credits earned before enrolling in college, such as through AP classes, would not be counted when determining students’ financial aid eligibility. 

The amendment also includes a provision to provide a special window of eligibility to students whose aid was rescinded last year after $3.6 million was cut from the Oregon Promise program. 

Kyle Thomas is the Director of Legislative and Policy Affairs at the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Committee. He hopes these changes are only the beginning of the states efforts to make college more affordable for low-income students. President Joe Biden’s plan to increase funding to the Pell Grant and provide two years of tuition-free community college could also be a game changer for financial aid. 

Thomas also hopes Oregon can share some of the challenges they’ve faced so the same mistakes are not made on a federal level. 

“As a state that has a promise program that was designed to provide a couple of years of free higher education at community college, we hope that Oregon will have a voice in helping federal policymakers understand some of the lessons that we've learned in operating the program in hopes that they will design sort of a more resilient and equity-oriented program than we have been able to design here.” 

 

Marichelle Gurski paints at home in Bend, Oregon, as a way of relieving stress.
Credit Bradley W. Parks / OPB

More Student Voice Could Meet More Needs

Increased financial aid  could also help students like Kathleen Rodríguez Pérez, a junior at the University of Oregon. The 20-year-old had a rough childhood. Pérez often had to take care of her mother, who has schizophrenia, and her two siblings. Pérez went into foster care at 14. 

Although she wasn’t adopted, she found a family in the foster care system that she’s grown to love. But that doesn’t translate into financial support. And the trauma she endured as a child has made it difficult for her to rely on others.

 

“I have my family, but it's like, I really have to do things on my own. I have to budget on my own. I don't feel safe relying on other people to help me with stuff,” said Pérez. “I just had to do things by myself all the time.”

Both Gurski and Pérez are involved with the Oregon Student Association, which lobbies to pass legislation to make higher education more accessible. To help give low income students and students of color a voice in education policy, the group has helped write HB 2590. If passed, the bill would require legislators to hear from students in K-12 and higher education institutions from across the state to learn what students need to be successful in high school and college. 

“I think there just needs to be more recognition of how low income students don't have the same advantages as other, more wealthier students,” said Pérez.

This project was made possible by a grant from the Education Writers Association.