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Grants cuts affect 1,000 students

When 18-year-old Leanna Gamon filed her Free Application for Federal Student Aid earlier this year, she discovered the federal aid she was eligible for was limited.

“I didn’t qualify for anything besides student loans,” said Gamon, who wanted to avoid a potentially long-term financial commitment.

The Grants Pass High School graduate, however, was awarded more than $3,800 through the Oregon Promise grant last spring, which she said will cover a significant amount of her tuition this fall at Rogue Community College, where she plans to study engineering.

Gamon is not one of the more than 1,000 high school graduates who had their Oregon Promise grants revoked this summer after the Oregon Legislature cut the program’s budget by $3.6 million.

The cut was part of a broader effort by the Legislature to close state budget shortfalls caused by COVID-19, according to the Oregon Office of Student Access and Completion. OSAC made the cuts by reducing the grant’s expected family contribution cutoff to 22,000,

The expected family contribution is a measure of a family’s financial strength, which takes into account a family’s taxed and untaxed income, assets, benefits, family size and the number of family members who plan to attend college during the year. Expected family contribution is expressed as a number equivalent to a dollar amount.

As a result of the Legislature’s cut this summer, more than 1,000 students who were awarded the grant were informed their grants had been revoked, according to the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, which administers the Oregon Promise Grant with OSAC, About 8,600 students who were awarded the grant this year were able to keep it. More than 6,400 students are renewing the grant, according to the Higher Education Coordinating Commission.

The Oregon Legislature launched the grant in 2015 to help recent high school graduates and GED test graduates pay tuition for any Oregon community college. Grant awards became available in 2016.

A student’s expected family contribution has only ever been used to determine grant eligibility for budgetary reasons, according to the Higher Education Coordinating Commission.

The last time a cutoff was imposed was in the 2017-18 academic year, when the commission imposed a cutoff of 18,000. The following academic year, the commission removed that limit and retroactively awarded grants to students who were affected by the cutoff — provided they were enrolled at a community college.

Whether the commission will be able to retroactively award students affected by this year’s cutoff for the next academic year depends on what the Legislature does next year, according to the commission.

In August, RCC President Cathy Kemper-Pelle said she was concerned decreasing state revenues resulting from the pandemic would result in cuts to state funding for higher education, particularly community colleges.

“In past economic crises, community colleges have really been viewed as the economic engines for their communities to retrain people for new career pathways,” she said.

More than 600 Oregon Promise students enrolled at RCC in fall 2019, according to Kemper-Pelle.

Gamon, who plans to eventually transfer to a four-year school, said she was concerned when she heard the news of the award rescissions for other students.

“You never want to hear your scholarship has been revoked,” she said.

In August, Republican state Reps. Mark Owens, R-Crane, and Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, along with state Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, sent a letter to Gov. Kate Brown calling for the $3.6 million that was cut from the program to be refunded. They called for the Emergency Board to find the money.

As of Sept. 3, the governor’s office had not responded to the letter, according to Owens. He said the state made commitments to Oregon students, many of whom he said had made plans for housing and transportation in the fall based on being awarded the Oregon Promise grant earlier in spring.

“This is a promise we broke,” he said.

The view from the third floor of the Higher Education Center at Eighth and Bartlett streets in downtown Medford shows part of the revitalized neighborhood around the campus. (Bob Pennell / Mail Tribune photo)