Portland Community College was the stage for the launch of a new initiative that would create a new fund to boost affordability, foster access to higher education and spur job training.
On Tuesday, Jan. 15, Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler outlined the Opportunity Initiative at a press conference in the lobby of the Sylvania Campus’ Performing Arts Center. Standing alongside business leaders, students and educators, Wheeler said the initiative would reduce the heavy burden of student debt while helping them become better prepared to create and fill the jobs of tomorrow.
The initiative has been introduced for the 2013 Legislative session as Senate Bill 11 and Senate Joint Resolution 1. If passed, the Opportunity Initiative would create a permanent Constitutionally-dedicated fund to supply financial assistance to students at Oregon’s universities, community colleges and vocational training programs.
“The Opportunity Initiative will increase the number of young Oregonians who will obtain the skills they need, and that employers want,” Wheeler said. “I believe it is the single best step we can take today to expand our economy, to make our communities more secure, and to help Oregon families be more self-sufficient.”
The fund would be created by tapping part of the state’s available debt capacity while remaining within prudent bonding limits, which would ensure Oregon’s credit rating stays strong. Wheeler estimates seeding the fund with $500 million where only the earnings are drawn upon. By doing this it would increase student assistance by 50 percent in the first biennium.
“We need it or something like it now, and we need to get it right,” said State Rep. Michael Dembrow, chair of the House Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee. “We need to come up with creative ways to help these students, to invest in them, so that they can graduate quickly and avoid crippling debt loads.”
From 2004-05 to 2011-12 academic years, the average Oregon university tuition and fees rose by 50 percent while per capita income grew by only 20 percent. While enrollment has increased 44 percent during the past five years at PCC, the funding the college gets from the state has declined by 20 percent, too. Oregon ranks 45th in the nation for per-capita support of education assistance, according to the National Association of State Student Grant Aid Programs. The state’s student assistance efforts have lagged behind the national average by 20 percent and students who attend college pay 18 percent more in tuition and fees than the national average.
Since 2006-07, financial aid applicants and recipients have grown by 129 percent at PCC. In 2011-12, 45 percent of PCC degree-seeking students have some form of financial aid, including grants, loans, college work study or Foundation scholarships. During the past five years, the PCC Foundation has awarded 3,000 scholarships. However, the Foundation was only able to award scholarships to 40 percent of the 1,600 students who applied last academic year.
Stable grant funding provided by the Opportunity Initiative would help bridge the financial gap that students face.
“As a low-income student, grants like these do not give me an advantage, they give me a chance,” said Wendy Hemken, a PCC student, a mother of two and a recipient of a PCC Foundation scholarship. “As the Opportunity Initiative moves forward, I hope to see the same level of determination for success from our legislators and voters that I do from my fellow students.”