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Kulongoski: Education is an Oregonian's birthright

MEDFORD — Increased state funding for a need-based college grant program will open the doors of postsecondary institutions to more Oregonians once shut out by financial barriers, Gov. Ted Kulongoski said Thursday during a visit to Rogue Community College.

The revised Oregon Opportunity Grant program will offer $72 million a year in fall 2008, more than doubling what was available in 2007 and increasing the number of recipients by 6,000 to about 33,000.

"This is progressively building to guarantee that every student who has the desire and ability to get a postsecondary degree has the opportunity to do that," Kulongoski said. "I don't want anyone in the state to say 'I'm not going to college because I can't afford it.' "

The enhanced funding will meet the needs of about 75 percent of those who are eligible for the grant.

Kulongoski said he hopes to boost funding to 100 percent by 2010.

The governor "is making going to college a birthright for every Oregonian," said Mary Cullinan, president of Southern Oregon University.

RCC and SOU officials have said financial limitations are the main reason students drop out of college or take a break from class. Oregon ranked 28th among the states in 2004-05 in providing need-based financial aid.

Tuition has risen as the Legislature's funding for higher education declined.

"We have students who are taking longer to finish their degrees because of the cost," said Peter Angstadt, RCC president. "This is a wonderful program because it shows students you can get in there, you can get the job done and get out and accomplish your goals."

Under new eligibility guidelines, grant recipients are expected to work about 720 hours per year (part time year-round or full time in summer and part time during school) to contribute to the cost of their education. They must also seek federal aid such as the Pell Grant and tax credits.

The changes also make more middle-class students eligible for the grant. Someone from a family of four with an annual income of up to $70,000 will qualify, up from $31,000.

The maximum amount an individual can receive is $2,600 a year for a community college and $3,200 a year for a university, either public or private. Students taking vocational training are also eligible for the grant.

Tuition at community colleges in the state has doubled since the 2000-01 school year, from an average of about $30 per credit hour to about $60 per credit hour. Students at state universities are paying about 50 percent more in tuition over the same period.

Escalating tuition has increased the amount of debt students have on average after graduation, deterring some from pursuing lower-paying social service and teaching jobs, according to a 2006 study by the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group.

"I know how hard it is to get your diploma in one hand and get a little booklet in the other telling you how much money you owe," Kulongoski said.

SOU student Kathleen Gamer of Ashland, a single mother, said the Oregon Opportunity Grant has helped keep her in college for the past three years.

Gamer, who speaks four languages, left an abusive marriage in 2000 and went back to school three years ago to earn a degree in international studies.

"Doubling the amount available in the grant program will help more students succeed as I have," she said.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.

Kulongoski: Education is an Oregonian's birthright