Student body presidents from five Oregon public universities Thursday sent a letter urging state lawmakers to reevaluate higher education spending priorities — away from construction projects and toward student financial aid.

“[W]e have seen a recurring trend in funding initiatives and projects across state universities that do not directly contribute to the needs of students,” the letter reads.

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Student advocacy nonprofit, the Oregon Student Association, along with student government presidents from the University of Oregon, Western Oregon University, Eastern Oregon University, Portland State University and Oregon State University, addressed their joint letter to the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission and the Oregon Legislature.

The letter specifically calls on the legislature to make emergency investments into the Oregon Opportunity Grant — Oregon’s largest state-funded, need-based grant program for college students.

Currently, less than one in four students who are eligible for the Oregon Opportunity Grant receive the funding, the letter states.

“This stands out as a deeply concerning flaw in state distribution of funding,” the letter reads. “We believe that financial aid investment is a fundamental part of any strategy for long term economic recovery across the state.”

Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission, or HECC, concurs that only a fraction of eligible students get that grant funding every year.

The grant serves low-income students — many of whom come from underrepresented groups — beginning with those who have the most need first. But, the HECC said, because of the funding available, Oregon Opportunity Grant funds only go to the lowest-income students.

According to the HECC, the grant supported about 33,000 Oregon undergraduate students in 2019-20. That’s compared to more than 64,000 students who received a federal Pell grant. The HECC also noted that students above the Pell grant threshold still face financial challenges.

According to recent data from the HECC, most students who receive Oregon Opportunity Grant funds still have trouble affording college.

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Nearly 80% of students receiving the Oregon Opportunity Grant at a public university and nearly half of recipients at community colleges still cannot cover expected costs of education, the HECC said.

“With years of rising college costs and a history of insufficient funding of need-based financial aid, college is already unaffordable for far too many Oregonians, and the economic crisis of the pandemic has added hardships for many,” Juan Baez-Arevalo, director of the HECC’s Office of Student Access and Completion, said in a statement. “Need-based financial aid is an effective investment in the student success of populations who are struggling most. If Oregon does not invest sufficiently, more students and families could be priced out of postsecondary education.”

The HECC said that research has shown that access to state grants increases graduation rates, both in Oregon and nationally.

Oregon’s state investment in financial aid — in the Oregon Opportunity Grant and other programs — is significantly lower than the national average, the HECC noted.

State financial aid per full-time student in the 2019 fiscal year was $575 in Oregon, well below the U.S. average of $808 per student. It’s even lower when compared to Washington and California — at $1,145 and $971 respectively.

The student government leaders and the Oregon Student Association said they have seen a trend of funding initiatives and projects at public universities that do not directly contribute to student needs.

In her proposed budget for the 2021-23 biennium, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown allotted roughly $309 million toward capital construction at public universities, such as residence hall renovations and other projects. That compares to $171.2 million in funding for the Oregon Opportunity Grant.

The letter said the group supports investing in projects such as safety updates and retrofitting, as well as buildings like multicultural student centers, but often institutions don’t take into account student needs when prioritizing construction projects.

“We are well aware of the potential financial recovery that capital construction initiatives offer during these difficult times, however, we weigh the financial burdens that students are facing as a higher priority for state funding,” the group wrote.

The group said capital construction funding does not directly support student needs, especially when many projects will not even be completed for years to come.

“University administrations have argued that investments in capital construction will mitigate the enrollment crisis and make education more affordable. Instead, the data collected over the last decade shows enrollment declines and alarming tuition increases,” the letter reads.

Along with requesting emergency investments into the Oregon Opportunity Grant, the group is also calling on the legislature to center student needs and to include students in setting spending priorities.

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