Madison Gaylin wakes up each weekday and makes the 45-minute drive from her parents’ home in Clatskanie to Clatsop Community College in Astoria.

Gaylin isn’t paying a dime for her tuition, fees, or books. That’s because the 18-year-old is one of 47 students attending the coastal school under Oregon Promise, a state program that acts as a last-dollar scholarship for qualified students to attend community colleges.

Though Gaylin had been eyeing Clatsop coming out of high school, she hadn’t been sure she was ready to “jump in and get in debt,” she said. Packaged with other scholarships and grants, the promise meant all that angst could wait.

As lawmakers start meeting in Salem this week to plan the budget for the next two years, the fate of the grant program intended to make community college more affordable for thousands of Oregonians like Gaylin is anything but guaranteed.

The Legislature approved the Oregon Promise in 2015 to much acclaim, becoming just the second state in the country to adopt such a program for recent high school graduates and GED recipients. An estimated 6,500 Oregonians are enrolled at 17 community colleges this school year through the promise. Students must first apply for federal financial aid, then any scholarships or grants are deducted from the tuition cost before the state chips in.

Oregon set aside $10 million for one academic year, meaning elected officials must decide whether to ante up in 2017 for the next wave of students.

Gaylin, the daughter of two mill workers, said she doesn’t know the specifics, just that she has to apply for the grant again soon and doesn’t know whether she’ll get the help for a second year as she originally thought. “It’s kind of an uneasy feeling,” she said.

According to a memo released two weeks ago by the Legislature’s chief budget writers – Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, and Rep. Nancy Nathanson, D-Eugene – the promise could be one of many casualties of Oregon’s $1.8 billon revenue shortfall. The legislators acknowledged their plan limits the number of students who could enroll and leaves the state “unable to fund” students like Gaylin who are already receiving grants.

First-year experience In Astoria and Bend, community colleges are trying new ways to keep Oregon Promise students engaged in campus life. The idea is the new programs will keep students engaged and enrolled. They’re also required by the state. Chris Ousley, dean of students at Clatsop Community College, said the school designed a new leadership course specifically for promise students. “We connected early,” he said, “and we keep connecting with these students.” The cohort had mandatory service projects, where they helped raise money for a local food bank and designed a clothing drive at a local primary school. Ninety percent of that group have met with an academic adviser, he said. The entire campus is all in on helping the students, and that level of caring is “exhausting, Ousley said, but the school is seeing the work pay off and the teenagers are largely sticking around for the winter term. Madison Gaylin, the Clatskanie native, said she’s enjoyed the mandatory classes for promise students because she feels more connected to the campus. In Bend, Central Oregon Community College is also seeing an uptick in promise students. The picturesque college on Bend’s westside saw 541 promise students show up for classes this fall, and roughly three-quarters of the group who signed up for orientation and the academic advising have better grads and stuck around longer. Alicia Moore, the college’s dean of students, said the campus is putting students first. “We know that we’re setting these students to really be successful in the short term,” she said. Moore said that Central Oregon Community College aggressively marketed itself as a good location for promise students. They advertised telling students about their college and the Oregon Promise on Pandora and through social and traditional media. The Bend college also has a campus dormitory which opened in 2015. The 320-bed hall is a bonus feature that attracts students from across the state to go to Bend for the two-year school. Roughly half of dorm residents are receiving the Oregon Promise, Moore said. Draven Pearce, 19, chose to go to the two-year school largely because he was interested in living in Bend. The Baker City native lives in a quad setup Rivalo in the residence hall, and estimated he is saving thousands of dollars per term because of the state grant. “I am so thankful that the state has made this possible,” he said.

Even such higher education advocates as state Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, and the community colleges’ lobbying organization, are unsure of the program’s future.

“There’s no doubt that under the current scenario, all programs, virtually, would take a serious hit,” said Hass, who is working on a plan to raise more revenue for the state. “My hope, though, is that (the $10 million earmarked by Devlin and Nathanson) was sort of a line in the sand.”

In her recommended spending plan, Gov. Kate Brown fully funded the promise in the 2017-19 biennium. Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission had requested $39.7 million to continue and expand the program.

Andrea Henderson, executive director of the Oregon Community College Association, said state campuses could face a “tremendous shortfall” and are already considering tuition increases this fall.

That means the promise is not first on the list of priorities. Number one is getting more state operating support; number two is securing commitments from lawmakers to expand the Oregon Opportunity Grant offered to low-income students.

The promise would fall third in line, she said.

“It will take lobbying to move the needle,” Henderson said of the $10 million in the Joint Ways and Means Committee chair’s budget framework.

The uncertainty comes at an awkward time as higher education leaders and school districts across state are already encouraging high schoolers students to apply for the Oregon Promise for this fall.

“We want folks to be in the queue,” said Ben Cannon, executive director of the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, “because we expect, and hope, and are planning to have a program next year.”

Program changes

Even as the program’s fate is uncertain, higher education leaders are proposing a number of changes for year two.

Henderson and others are pushing the state to lower the GPA requirements to 2.0. The promise is currently open to qualified high school graduates who earn at least a 2.5 grade point average, or who have earned a GED within the past six months.

By design, the two-year schools are open to anyone from the community, Henderson said. Having a grade requirement runs counter to the colleges’ mission. Some students are attending two-year schools for welding certificates or other trades that are more skill-oriented, where past grades would have less relevance than current proficiency.

“To disadvantage those who are under a 2.5 [GPA] is really a problem,” she said.

According to several studies, including a 2014 report from the National Association for College Admissions Counseling on colleges that don’t require ACT or SAT test scores, high school grades remain a top predictor of success in college.

But Henderson brushed that aside, saying helping students across all spectrums of academic levels is part of a community college’s DNA. “That’s what we do,” she said, “all of our programs are designed around that.” 

Cannon wouldn’t take a position on the proposal to lower grade requirements. But, he said, while it would likely open the grant program to more students, there are other consequences. “With greater access would be greater expense and lower completions,” he said.

Just lowering the bar would require more focus on improving mentoring and advising programs for students. That costs money, Cannon said. “Those students will need greater levels of support in order for them to succeed.”

Cannon said he also is interested in adding some flexibility for those who go past the six-month application window. Some students miss the cut because they’re ill or caring for a sick family member.

Henderson said she will push to waive the $50 fee students must pay to qualify for the program, saying it is an unnecessary administrative expense that doesn’t produce revenue for the state.

Halfway through the school year, state officials also are still trying to better understand who the promise students are and whether they would have attended college without state assistance.

According to a state report from December, roughly 6,745 promise students were enrolled at a two-year school in the fall, out of 10,459 applicants who met all of the requirements. Some 1,091 eligible applicants went to four-year universities in Oregon instead of community college. The promise students who did enroll at Clatsop and other colleges made up 5.4 percent of the state’s community college population. The four-year universities saw a slight decline in enrollment, but state officials are not sure whether that’s directly related to the promise program.

Looking at the numbers, Cannon and Henderson said they’re concerned that the program isn’t reaching enough African American students in particular.

Just 1.3 percent of promise recipients are black, compared with 2.7 percent of the state’s 12th grade population. The percentage of Latino students was also lower, with 19.6 percent of promise students identifying as Hispanic compared with 21.3 percent of the senior class.

That is troubling, Henderson said. “The biggest question that we still have is are we closing the achievement gap?”

The state needs to “redouble our commitment” to reaching out to high school students about the program, Cannon said.

— Andrew Theen

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