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Oregon's College Grants Help Only 1 In 5 Poor Students

It's a good thing 31-year-old Anita Magana has scholarships and loans to pay for Portland Community College.

Oregon's "free community college" proposal wouldn't apply to her because she's been out of high school too long, and she can't qualify for an Oregon Opportunity Grant.

"Because my husband works three jobs in order to support us, he makes too much money," Magana said. "Doesn't feel that way, but, yes, he does."

The Opportunity Grant is for very low-income college students to spend at the Oregon college or university of their choice. But its reach is limited.

"The Opportunity Grant pretty much serves only one in five people who apply for it," said PCC president Jeremy Brown. That is, the first who apply.

Holly Vaughn-Edmonds is a counselor at Portland's Franklin High. She has her students submit financial aid paperwork as early as possible.

"We tell them, the reason you need to do it January 1st is that by March — all that money could be gone. It feels a little like we're pitting our kids against other kids," Vaughn-Edmonds said. "All kids should have access to that money."

The Opportunity Grant has the support of the state's Higher Education Coordinating Commission. Commission Director Ben Cannon acknowledges that the grant fund doesn't help wealthier students and helps too few of the really poor. He says to get away from the first-come, first-served race, the commission may extend the deadline while tightening income qualifications.

As for students from middle-class families, they may take on debt, but they can pay it off when the graduate and land good jobs, Cannon said.

"But the problem is real," he added. "I think you'd find a lot of middle-class families saying, 'Even if we are convinced our student is going to graduate in a good field, we're concerned it's not going to pencil out.'"

PCC President Jeremy Brown says the state should tackle affordability by answering three questions: "How many students might we be able to affect? What is the best possible return on investment for the state? And what are the students telling us?"

Hundreds of students at a recent rally in Salem were pretty clear about that. They want the state to spend enough on higher education to freeze tuition for everyone.

In the meantime, educators and students find workarounds, like the one benefiting 19-year-old Shawna Miller. Her classes at Linn-Benton Community College are free because she's still technically still enrolled at Corvallis High. But that won't help Miller next year.

"I have some money but I don't have that much," Miller said. "So, having tuition, like, freeze or go lower would be really helpful, just because I could pay for more than one term of college, which would be awesome."

Portland State University president Wim Wievel was at the rally, too — advocating for more money for institutions like his. But he says aid money is key, too.

"Conceivably, if you gave enough operational money, you could keep tuition increases very low, but you're always going to have low-income students who need that extra help," Wievel said.

The state has set ambitious goals for many more young people to attend and finish college. Wievel agrees with that, but says expanding who attends Oregon colleges carries a cost.

"If we want to educate the kind of populations that traditionally haven't gone to college — whose parents haven't gone to college — it takes a lot more to make sure they get into universities, and that they have the advising and assistance, to actually succeed and graduate," Wievel said.

Ultimately, the math is simple: Whatever taxpayer money the state provides can reduce what students and families have to pay.

And like Oregon families, legislators have more than the rising cost of higher education to pay for.

<p>Portland Community College student Anita Magana</p>

Portland Community College student Anita Magana

Copyright 2015 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Rob Manning is a JPR content partner from Oregon Public Broadcasting. Rob has reported extensively on Oregon schools and universities as OPB's education reporter and is now a news editor.