By Kailey Fisicaro

The Bulletin

When the class of 2017 graduated high school, the state Legislature had yet to decide new rules on who qualifies for the Oregon Promise grant.

Now, educators are sure there are some Central ­Oregon students who were counting on the grant to pay for community college that didn’t get it because of the rule change — although it’s hard to say yet how many.

The state grant, which pays for community college tuition, was first available to the class of 2016 and people who earned their GED that year. For that first group, the grant was not needs-based; instead it had a few other requirements, including a minimum 2.5 cumulative GPA.

Following legislation passed in July, the grant now considers how much families are expected to pay for college, based on a formula that takes into account a family’s income, assets and the number of children they have in college.

Students whose families are expected to pay $18,000 per year or more no longer qualify for the grant.

Although the rule change was finalized after students had submitted applications for the grant, it applies to those who graduated in 2017.

Students who first received Oregon Promise in 2016 are grandfathered into the previous rules.

In 2017, of the 15,840 students who applied for the ­Oregon Promise grant, 8,612 are eligible to receive it if they choose to enroll in community colleges this fall, according to the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission. Of the applicants, 2,172 students were not awarded the grant solely because their families were expected to pay $18,000 or more.

Alicia Moore, Central ­Oregon Community College’s dean of student and enrollment services, said surprisingly, the college hasn’t heard from many students who were counting on the money and didn’t get it. Although she and others knew change was likely, what the change would be was unknown for some time.

“It was so unclear as to what was going to happen,” Moore said.

It’s still too early to say how many freshmen at the community college thought they would get Oregon Promise who didn’t, Moore said, because classes don’t start until Monday. But she knows the first group of students who earned the grant included a lot of students who would no longer qualify under the new rule.

“My estimate is about 25 to 30 percent of our students who received it the first year would not be eligible if they graduated a year later,” Moore said.

As of late August the community college had about 500 first-year students who had applied for Oregon Promise and registered with the school, Moore said.

Some local high school counselors wished they could have had more notice about the nature of the rule change to let their senior students know. They knew the program might change, but they didn’t know it would take into consideration what a family is expected to pay for school.

“I just felt like we should have had a heads up,” said Kent Child, School-to-Career program manager at Summit High School. “It wasn’t super clear, and it wasn’t promoted that way that we might not be able to fund everybody.”

Child, who is also head of the high school’s college and career center, described Oregon Promise as wonderful, adding she applauds the state “for being an innovator” in finding a way to help all students pay for community college. But one part of the change in the funding policy that upset her was how late it came.

She knows students at ­Summit High School who were accepted to a four-year school but decided to stay home and save money by going to community college, planning to pay for it with the Oregon Promise grant.

“It seemed unclear to us,” Child said. “It just seems there could have been a little bit better communication, but it could have been that nobody knew.”

Joi Leahy, who heads Mountain View High School’s college and career center, said she doesn’t think there were students at her school who were counting on the Oregon Promise grant who wouldn’t have been eligible because of what their family is expected to contribute. Students she could think of who planned to attend Central Oregon Community College and who applied for Oregon Promise qualified for the Pell Grant, which means they’d likely be eligible for Oregon Promise too. Oregon Promise is a last-dollar-in scholarship, meaning if a student receives other state or federal grants, that money goes toward his or her tuition first before he or she gets anything from Oregon Promise.

Leahy said communication about Oregon Promise was more confusing in its first year, in that some families understood the grant to equal free community college, which it doesn’t. Leahy, like Child, had no idea the change to Oregon Promise might mean it considers what a family can pay for college. This year the two still plan to encourage students to apply for the grant at their respective schools, but they will now be able to inform the students of the new guidelines.

Ben Cannon, executive director of the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission, which runs the Oregon Promise grant, agreed the last-minute change “certainly complicated plans for many students and families.”

“We have heard that frustration and share it,” Cannon said, adding the commission gets calls daily from students who were left out of the Oregon Promise grant with the rule change.

The commission is working to help those students find ways to pay for school, but those who didn’t qualify based on income for Oregon Promise wouldn’t typically qualify for Pell Grants or the state’s ­Opportunity Grant. In addition to state grants, the agency administers more than 500 private scholarships.

Cannon said from the beginning of the application period for Oregon Promise last year, the state tried to include general statements about the possibility of the grant changing.

“As the legislative session wore on, certainly in March, April, May, it became clear to us that the change would be to implement the expected family contribution,” Cannon said, adding, “I don’t think we proactively communicated that message to high schools or students.”

Although the Legislature’s direction was clear, it would have been “highly unofficial” for the state agency to put out that message before it was final, he said. Not to mention, the commission was “still hoping for and working for full funding until June or July.”

Cannon said the commission also wanted all students to apply for the Oregon Promise grant, regardless of their family’s financial situation, in case they could qualify.

“Our emphasis was to get as many students to apply as possible, while trying to ensure that students might not get funding,” Cannon said.

The commission posted about the change to Oregon Promise on July 20 after the legislation passed. It emailed students about whether they earned Oregon Promise money beginning in mid-August. Just like with any communications though, it’s possible some students might have missed those emails.

“It may be the case that students enroll at a community college this month and go to the financial aid office expecting to receive a financial award and find out they’re not on the list,” Cannon said.

Cannon acknowledged the expected family contribution doesn’t always match up with what’s realistic for families. Some affluent families might not have saved for college by choice, expecting their students to pay, or they may have been unable to save despite their income and assets.

Going forward, he’d like to see a sustainable, guaranteed funding source for the grant.

“We wouldn’t from year to year have to make eligibility changes that would potentially throw a real wrench into students’ planning,” Cannon said. “That would be ideal, that would be true for any scholarship grant program.”

Cannon expects the Oregon Promise grant program will look pretty much the same in the 2018-19 school year as it does now. The one change the commission may make is to adjust the $18,000 threshold up or down. The Legislature gave the commission the flexibility to manage the budget for the program, depending on how many students enroll.

— Reporter: 541-383-0325,