First published in The Register Guard on June 13, 2021.
By Jim Brooks and Timothy Withrow
The pandemic has exacerbated and shed light on inequities that plague our society. From health care to employment, we’ve seen the ways in which BIPOC, lower- and middle-income and rural Oregonians struggle.
One of the areas where gaps have been most pronounced is higher education. Lawmakers might be tempted to think the funding students are receiving through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds addresses these needs, but the reality is that funding is going to help students keep food on the table, pay utility bills and otherwise get through the pandemic — doing little to address long-term financial aid needs. That’s why we’re writing jointly, as a first-generation college student and Oregon Opportunity Grant recipient and a financial aid administrator who was also a first-generation college student, in support of meaningful state investments in resources for students.
Our state’s equitable future and recovery from the pandemic depend on it. It’s time to expand the Oregon Opportunity Grant and double the Federal Pell Grant.
As a student, I know the cost of higher education plays an outsized role in the decisions students make. These decisions include whether to buy textbooks or pay rent, or to take a chance on an unpaid internship. As a volunteer at the Student Food Pantry, I saw classmates, professors, parents, students of color, immigrants and community members visit to avoid going hungry — a fragile balancing act consisting of many competing stressors. Between providing for one's family, paying tuition and a litany of other structural and financial barriers, for many underrepresented, rural and low-income students the dream of higher education doesn’t seem attainable.
This is a shame, as I can honestly say that my time at the UO has been a transformative experience for which I will be forever grateful. A college degree is worth so much more than the cost of attendance, and that is why it’s crucial for Oregon to prioritize expanded funding for the Opportunity Grant.
As a financial aid administrator who has worked in other states, I know these experiences aren’t unique to Oregon. In a national survey, 62% of community college students and 51% of university students were food or housing insecure, and this was more prevalent among former foster youth, underrepresented students of color and first-generation students. Everyday my team works with struggling students. They work multiple jobs, sometimes sacrificing course loads and extending their time to graduation, in order to pay for school and cover living expenses.
Despite the challenges students face today, state and federal financial aid programs come up short, leaving Oregon students with more debt and fewer resources to complete a degree. Oregon students graduate from four-year institutions with more debt, on average, than peers in other Western states, and this debt load has increased in the last decade. For the 2018 academic year, 44% of Oregon students were unable to meet expenses with expected resources.
The percentage of students who aren’t able to meet expenses is a byproduct of financial aid programs, including the Pell Grant and our state’s Opportunity Grant, being under-funded and not keeping up with the cost of college. Perhaps the most prominent example, Pell Grants, are the federal government's main tool for helping lower-income students afford college, but the program hasn’t kept up with costs. In 1980, Pell Grants covered more than 75% of the cost to attend a four-year public university. Today the maximum award covers only 28%.
The Oregon Opportunity Grant helps some students, but not enough, make up this gap. The grant offers lower-income students funding beginning with the students who have the lowest expected family contributions. In a typical year, more than two-thirds of Oregon’s filers have financial need, but due to funding limitations, not all students receive awards. This means every year a large segment of Pell-eligible students don’t qualify for an Opportunity Grant. During the 2019-20 school year approximately 33,000 students received an Oregon Opportunity Grant while 64,000 students received a Pell grant.
It’s time to restore opportunity for Oregon students. We’re unlikely to see the Pell Grant doubled this year, but we hope the Oregon Legislature will recognize the importance of this investment and make a down-payment by expanding the Oregon Opportunity Grant this session.