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College grants to go to neediest first

PORTLAND — Oregon will begin offering college grants to the state's low- and middle-income students based on their level of need. That's a change from the former first-come, first served system.

Students who filled out their request for financial aid the soonest used to jump to the front of the line provided they were Oregon residents with an annual family income of less than $70,000, said Bob Brew, director of the Higher Education Coordinating Commission's Office of Student Access and Completion.

"Lower-income students tended to apply later and not get the money," Brew told The Oregonian on Friday. Once the state money allocated to the Oregon Opportunity Grant had all been assigned, it was gone.

State lawmakers tweaked the system in 2015, adding more money to the grant and allowing the neediest students to be first in line.

They increased the program by nearly 24 percent for the 2015-17 cycle, dedicating $140.9 million to the program. The expansion will allow an additional 16,000 people to receive grants, Brew said.

About 40,000 students currently receive an Oregon Opportunity Grant.

Lawmakers also approved rules to guarantee the neediest students who apply for the program receive preferential treatment when the state distributes aid for upcoming school year.

But some administrators are concerned about the impact of those rules, which could mean some full-time students who had been receiving a maximum of $2,250 in state aid will no longer qualify. "We want to make sure those students aren't further disenfranchised in their path to get a degree," said Hans Bernard, associate vice president for state and community affairs at the University of Oregon.

Low-income students face funding gaps even if they qualify for the Federal Pell Grant and the state program, said Bernard, explaining that about 2,000 such students receive full tuition through the university's PathwayOregon program.

The university said it wasn't clear how changes in the grant program would affect those students.

The state typically sends award letters to more people than it can fund, like an airline that oversells seats, Brew said. Only about half of the people who receive letters actually show up and enroll in college, he said.