Not-So-Free College: Oregon Changes Requirements for Free Tuition

Some college-bound students in Oregon won’t receive money for college the state promised them for this upcoming school year. In 2016, Oregon became one of the first states to offer to cover students’ community college tuition, setting a $40 million budget for the Oregon Promise Program. However, state funding missed that mark by about $8 million this year.

The funding shortfall and a high turnout of applicants has forced Oregon state legislators to change the program’s eligibility requirements and disqualify students from the highest-earning households.

What’s changing

The Oregon legislature has given authority to the Higher Education Coordinating Commission (HECC) to establish cost controls for the Oregon Promise Program. HECC made a new rule that caps grant eligibility at students whose families are able to contribute $18,000 or more toward the student’s post-secondary education, according to the expected family contribution (EFC) calculation students receive after submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or Oregon Student Aid Application (ORSAA).

As a result, the state will only be able to award grants to about 80% of eligible new applicants for the fall 2017 semester. More than 15,000 students have applied for the grant for the upcoming 2017-18 school year, starting in September, HECC tells MagnifyMoney. So far, about 8,300 have been told they are eligible for Oregon Promise grants. However, notification of eligibility does not mean a student will receive an award — HECC won’t have an official number of recipients until students enroll in community colleges.

In its first year, the program awarded a total of $4.4 million to about 6,800 students, or 5.4% of fall 2016 community college students. Between November 2015 and March 2016, more than 19,000 people applied, and of that group, 10,459 met GPA, residency, and FAFSA requirements. Among them, 1,091 enrolled in public universities, therefore they didn’t receive a grant, and 6,745 enrolled in community college and received grants.

If you’re one of 6,745 students who enrolled in the program last year, you’re safe. Last year’s participants won’t be affected by the new income criteria and will continue to receive the grant, according to HECC.

The commission says the new limit could change again. Moving forward, the HECC will check the program’s funding annually and may adjust or eliminate the EFC limit, depending on how much funding is available.

What the Oregon Promise covers

The grant covers the gap between what a student receives in scholarships and grants, like the federal Pell grant, and what they need to cover tuition at Oregon community colleges. Legislators set a $1,000 annual award minimum, so even students who have tuition fully covered with federal grant money or scholarships still receive funds. Applicants must be a recent Oregon high school graduate or GED recipient, have high school cumulative GPA of 2.5 or higher, be an Oregon resident for at least a year before attending college, and not have attempted or completed more than 90 college credits.

Students left without the money they need for school may be forced to turn to other borrowing options like taking out a federal student loan or personal loan to attend school this year.

Other states with similar programs

Oregon isn’t the only state that offers free tuition to its community college students. The trend, started by the Obama Administration in 2015, gained even more popularity during the 2016 election season, prompting states like New York, Tennessee and Rhode Island and cities like San Francisco to test drive free college programs. Here’s a rundown of some of these programs:

New York

New York’s Excelsior Scholarship Program allows students to attend a State University of New York or City University of New York college tuition-free. Beginning in fall 2017, New York state residents from households earning $100,000 or less are eligible to receive up to $5,500 per school year for college.

Tennessee

In Tennessee, any state residents who have yet to earn their associate’s or bachelor’s degree can attend community or technical college for free. Starting in 2018, the Tennessee Promise Program will offer scholarships that cover the gap in of tuition and mandatory fees after what’s covered by a student’s Pell grant, the HOPE scholarship, or the Tennessee Student Assistance Award.

Rhode Island

Residents — regardless of income — can earn their associate degree for free at the Community College of Rhode Island beginning in fall 2017. The Rhode Island Promise program (seeing a trend here?) applies to 2017 high school graduates or those 19 years old or younger who received their GED in 2017.

Louisiana

Louisiana’s TOPS, or Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, is a collection of scholarships that pays tuition and some fees for Louisiana residents attending any of the state’s community colleges or public four-year colleges or universities, as long as the student graduated from high school with at least a 2.5 GPA.

San Francisco

San Francisco became the first U.S. city to offer a free college tuition program by introducing its Free City program in 2017. Beginning fall 2017, city residents who have lived in the state of California for a year or longer as of the first day of school are eligible to receive free tuition for the City College of San Francisco. Some lower-income residents are also eligible to receive stipends up to $250 per semester to help cover things like books and other college related expenses.

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