The season of optimism and big dreams is underway. Bright new students are finishing classes at Oregon’s universities, ready to learn, achieve and prepare themselves for a future that may not yet be imaginable. These are the brilliant and innovative young minds that will shape Oregon’s economy, leadership and social climate.

This is the time of year when all of us at the University of Oregon see the future of our state. It is a changing portrait, and one that should fill all of us with hope, optimism and a sense of pride in our young people.

The UO has students this fall from every state in the U.S. and from nearly 100 countries around the world. But we have never been more sharply focused on local talent — the top students and most promising minds that Oregon produces.

We have approximately 2,800 new students from the state of Oregon, with nearly 1,100 from the Portland metropolitan area. More than 400 are from Portland, more than 100 from Beaverton, about 80 from Gresham and roughly 60 from my hometown of Hillsboro. The tri-county area of Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties continues to be the largest source of students to the UO.

Prospective students are more aware than ever of our university’s academic strength and broad spectrum of excellence, inside and outside the classroom. We have also made admission to the UO more accessible and affordable than ever for high-performing students.

The result is a record-setting class of incoming freshmen, whose average high school GPA reached 3.6 for the first time in school history and whose average SAT and ACT scores set new UO records.

We have restructured our financial aid programs to create the Summit and Apex scholarships, producing a 75 percent overall increase in aid to Oregonians — approximately $2.8 million for each incoming class. Our new configuration for merit-based scholarships is more transparent and understandable, and will increase the number of top Oregon students attending the UO.

Oregon’s highest-achieving scholars are eligible for as much as $20,000 in financial aid over four years with our Summit Scholarships or $12,000 over four years with our Apex Scholarships. The UO’s most generous and prestigious undergraduate scholarship for Oregonians — funded by the Stamps Family Charitable Foundation and the UO — will be awarded to a total of 20 students over four years, with a value of about $110,000 per student.

At the UO, we clearly want Oregon’s best and brightest, and we do not want financial need to stand in the way. Overall, we have awarded $3.9 million in aid from our four most-used scholarship programs to Oregonians in this year’s freshman class — a 75 percent increase over last year. Freshmen from the Portland metro area have been awarded approximately $2 million for the upcoming year, which represents an increase of 94 percent.

Additionally, 37 percent of this fall’s incoming freshmen from Oregon are eligible for federal Pell Grants, intended for students from lower-income households.

Oregonians who are Pell Grant-eligible and meet academic standards can be served by the UO’s Pathway Oregon program, which covers all tuition and fees for qualified Oregon students and offers ongoing guidance for those who may not be familiar with the nuances of higher education. Pathway Oregon, now in its sixth year, served nearly 1,550 students last year and added about 560 freshmen this fall — up from last year’s freshman contingent of 400. That 40 percent, one-year increase — doubling the total dollars awarded to Pathway freshmen — demonstrates our commitment to Oregonians in need.

Whether one considers our Summit, Apex or Pathway Oregon programs, the UO is determined to provide financial assistance for our talented young people to attend the UO and impact the future of our state.

Our newest class offers both socio-economic variety and ethnic diversity. The number of domestic minority students in our 2012 freshman class (25.3 percent) surpassed that of the state (21.3 percent), and this fall’s freshman class pushed the percentage even higher. Another 10 percent of our incoming freshmen are international students, adding to a strong cultural mix and vibrant atmosphere for learning.

We have an outstanding new group of Oregon’s best and brightest young minds enrolled at the UO, and they will very likely complete their degrees on our campus. Our freshman-to-sophomore retention rate is an outstanding 86 percent, and the average UO student graduates in 13.8 terms — just over four years.

The UO offers world-class education, which is why we are one of 62 top research institutions in North America that comprise the prestigious Association of American Universities, and why we are one of just 34 public institutions in the AAU.

We prepare students for the 21st century workplace and to contribute in a growing, vibrant Oregon — good reasons for us all to feel optimistic.

Roger Thompson serves as the University of Oregon’s vice president for enrollment management.

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