State college aid to shrink without more funding

SALEM — Oregon college students will get smaller financial aid checks next year unless the Legislature provides additional funding because the state awarded more money than it has available. Without more funding, the Oregon Opportunity Grants would have to be cut in the spring by $400 for full-time and $200 for part-time students. The door would also shut early on new applicants next year. The Oregon Student Assistance Commission sets the budget for the grants but has fallen short for the second year in a row.

Dennis Johnson, the commission director, said more students than expected enrolled in Oregon colleges and universities this year, and more qualified for aid at higher levels, squeezing the budget.

Last year, the commission provided grants to roughly 38,500 students. The average grant is about $2,000 for a full academic year.

On Thursday, the commission voted to implement spring term cuts of $120 for full-time and $60 for part-time students, rolling some of the deficit into next year.

It also voted to ask the Legislature's Emergency Board, which meets in February, for $19.7 million to prevent the cuts.

The commission could choose to restore some or all of the spring-term cuts if the emergency board allocates at least $5 million in additional funding for this year, said Susan Degen, Opportunity Grant administrator.

In a letter to the commission, Gov. Ted Kulongoski said he would support an additional $15 million for next year.

But he said the overcommitment of funds "has shaken my confidence in the administration of the program and has created new challenges for its continued success."

Kulongoski ordered the commission to prepare scenarios of the impact on students this year and next year at different levels of additional funding.

The grants are a key piece of Kulongoski's "shared responsibility model" for helping more Oregon students attend college.

Johnson said Opportunity Grant awards were cut by $80 last year for full-time students. The state's public four-year colleges and some private colleges made up all or part of the difference using donations, but community colleges were not able to do that, he said.

The decision would come before spring term for public school students, but private colleges begin their second semester in January. They likely would get refunds, Johnson said.

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