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Portland State to offer four years for free

PHOTO COURTESY: PORTLAND STATE UNIVERSITY - Portland State University has promised to make college tuition free for incoming freshmen who meet income and other eligibility requirements. Portland State University unveiled a new program Tuesday that will make a four-year degree free for thousands of eligible students.

It is the first time an Oregon public university has announced such a program and, according to a PSU official, the largest institution in the nation.

Called Four Years Free, the PSU program will use a combination of already-available federal and state grants with institutional waivers to guarantee tuition and fees are free for low-income students.

The program seems to echo Oregon Promise, a 2015 legislative bill that made national headlines for making tuition and fees at Oregon’s community colleges nearly free for in-state recent high school graduates.

Incoming 2017-18 freshmen who have a 3.4 grade point average and who are eligible for federal Pell grants are able to apply to the PSU program immediately.

Currently, 38 percent of Portland State University’s nearly 30,000 students are Pell eligible. Officials estimate that 8,500 total students will ultimately take advantage of the program. Oregon State University has a free tuition program launched in 2007 that covers about 3,000 students.

However, the Portland program does not extend to auxiliary expenses such as supplies, books, transportation or room and board.

Paula Bishop, a college financial aid expert based in Bellevue, Washington, says without paying the additional living expenses, it probably won’t change the bottom line much for families. Students will still need to apply for scholarships and use federal aid and loan programs to attend school full-time, she says.

“It sounds good, but the kids probably would have gotten free tuition anyway,” Bishop says. “It makes Portland State sound so generous.”

She says many families get stuck on the financial aid form or assume that they can’t afford college and never try.

“So many are in the dark,” Bishop says. “That’s the barrier.”

A full-time student with 15 credits per term pays about $8,400 per year in tuition and fees at Portland State University. The Pell grant pays up to $5,815 of that and the Oregon Opportunity Grant pays up to $2,250. Portland State University was unable to provide an estimate of the budget for the program, but a spokesman said it would not cost the university any additional money from what is already budgeted.

Most Pell grants are given to students whose families earn less than $30,000 per year, but some are given to families with annual incomes up to and exceeding $60,000 per year.

But the Four Years Free program may make it more attractive and clear to families why they need to finish up that Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form.

“We’re really excited just about the fact that we are really meeting the needs of our students,” said Shannon Carr, the university’s executive director of admissions and new student programs. “I think we’re really strongly committed to our access mission.”

Carr says she sees the program as a "partner" to Oregon Promise — a free option for those who want to start at a four-year university right away.

“I think it’s a reaction to several things,” she said, noting the outcry over tuition hikes “to the point that I think students and parents are asking themselves: ‘Is college the right choice for me?’”

Carr says the university is not capping the number of students who can sign up for the program. It is unclear how much that will cost the university.

“We're not quite certain yet,” she said. “It sorts of depends on how many students apply and are Pell eligible.”

Portland State University made headlines earlier this year with an initiative campaign for a Metro-wide payroll tax. That was eventually scuttled with an agreement with a business coalition to come up with $25 million per year for the urban university.

Asked how the university can afford to offer free tuition, Carr said the institution will benefit in other ways from students’ attendance.

“The more residents we enroll, the more we get matching dollars from the state,” she said, also noting the university will get revenue from students who stay at university residences.

Students have to be full-time at PSU and maintain at least a 2.0 GPA, as well as stay eligible for federal aid.

“The money doesn’t come in if they’re not upholding their end of the bargain,” Carr said.


Scholarships, enrollment

Applications for PSU Foundation scholarships are due to Dec. 1; FAFSA forms are due Feb. 1; and fall term admission applications are due May 1.

See more information at: https://www.pdx.edu.


Enrollment down at PCC despite Oregon Promise

Annual enrollment figures obtained by the Portland Tribune show that the state's largest community college actually had declining enrollment in 2015-16 and the first part of this year.

Oregon Promise, passed by the Legistlature in 2015, gave recent high school graduates free access to community college, aside from a nominal term fee of $50.

PCC officials expressed doubt when the $10 million program was announced that it would help very many of the college's students.

In 2015-16, annual enrollment at PCC was 78,803, down 7.6 percent from the year before and well below the recent high of 94,634 in the 2011-12 school year. There are no solid numbers yet for Fall 2016 but James Hill, a PCC spokesman, confirmed there would likely be a slight dip and said enrollment is strongly linked to the economy.

"The macro trend has always been that when the economy improves, less people enroll in community colleges because jobs are plentiful and they don't need extra training or schooling," Hill wrote in an email.

EDIT: This story was amended to read that PSU will not spend any additional money on the program. Additional information was also added to reflect the estimated number of program participants and Oregon State University's free tuition program.