PORTLAND — Thousands of community college students will start fall classes next week through the Oregon Promise — a program designed to make school more affordable.
But the costs of attending school won't necessarily be completely covered by the state program, which may come as a surprise to some parents and students who heard about "free community college" and missed the fine-print.
Last July, Gov. Kate Brown touted the program after she signed the bill into law. "In rural and urban communities alike, recent high school graduates will now be able to earn their undergraduate education tuition-free at their local community college," Brown said.
But according to the bill itself, Brown and others, may have overstated the program's reach.
While the largest share of expected Oregon Promise students said they would receive zero financial support from their parents on federal financial aid applications, state officials said several thousand students can expect to pay at least some tuition this fall.
The promise grant is available to Oregon residents who finished high school with at least a 2.5 grade point average or obtained a GED and enrolled in a community college at least part-time within six months of finishing high school.
Oregon chipped in $10 million for the first year, but the overall plan works because the state is banking on students qualifying for other grants available to low-income students.
Ben Cannon, Oregon's Higher Education Coordinating Commission, said the state doesn't know how many promise eligible students will show up and remain in school. But according to his office, about 3,700 students - or more than one-third of eligible promise students - would expect to pay some of their tuition.
For many, that could mean a couple dollars, Cannon said, for others it "could be up to about $300 for the year" depending on where they are enrolled.
Cannon stressed that for the thousands of low-income promise students who do qualify for the federal Pell Grants or the Oregon Opportunity Grant, tuition will not be an issue. Those two grants will cover the cost of tuition.
But not all of the roughly 10,379 students who submitted valid promise applications and are eligible for the program receive those assistance programs. And some students attending more expensive community colleges could be on the hook for paying a portion of their tuition because of how the state law established the specific grant amounts.
"This nuance has gotten lost," Cannon said, "and we may be partly to blame for that."
This year, the maximum Pell Grant is $5,815 per year — depending on a student's financial need. In Oregon, the state may provide an additional $2,250 per year for needy students through its Opportunity Grant.
The Oregon Promise deducts the amount of those grants from the cost of tuition first, if a student qualifies. The student is responsible for $50 per term under the bill's language. For those low-income Oregonians, their annual promise grant is capped at $1,000 annually. That's money they could use to pay for books or additional student fees, or other costs not covered by the grant.
So where does the potential for a tuition gap come into play?
When Oregon lawmakers approved the program, the law specified the maximum grants to students would be capped at the average cost of tuition statewide. That figure was based on a 12-credit course load.
The average community college tuition is approximately $3,398 per year. If a student chooses a more expensive school, or takes a heavier class load, they will owe the difference.
Sherrie Nicholson, a Corvallis resident, said her daughter's expected cost to attend Linn-Benton Community College took the family by surprise.
"It's not what the kids were told in the schools, at all," Nicholson said Monday. Her daughter, Makayla, attended West Albany High School, where she recalled she was told the Oregon Promise pays for her to attend the school. The Nicholsons expected to owe just $50 per term.
"I think people have been misled and they're finding out now that these kids are enrolled that they're not getting what they were told," she said.
Makayla Nicholson fell perfectly into the tuition gap.
She's going to Linn Benton Community College, the cost per student credit hour is at least $5 more than the state average, according to a state spreadsheet.
She's also enrolled in 15 credits starting next week, and the Oregon Promise is only designed to pay grants for students taking 12 credits. Nicholson's out-of-pocket costs are likely above Cannon's $300 estimate because of her heavy course load.
The Nicholsons didn't take out any federal student loans, and they don't qualify for either grant program for low-income students.
Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, said the state had to find a solution to cap the tuition, and a statewide average seemed like the way to go.
"This is a basic no-frills plan that is all we could afford," said Hass, who sponsored the legislation.
Hass, who has been touring some community colleges and meeting with hundreds of promise students, said lawmakers did not intend for students to have a tuition gap. "If there are some bugs to work out, we will (fix them)," he said. Hass said the turnout for the program, and the students' personal stories are "heartwarming."
Cannon said the state has been expecting to hear from students for months about situations like the Nicholsons.
But he described the situation as "rare" and added that many Oregon families wouldn't pay for any tuition.
Cannon said the higher education commission may take a look at increasing the amount of state grants to students like Makayla Nicholson who want to take a heavier course load.
Hass agreed he would like to see the credit level raised.
The state only funded the program for one school year, and Hass said he will push hard for continuing the grant in the next legislative session.