University of Oregon senior Samantha Winfrey is familiar with the struggle to afford an education. If it weren’t for PathwayOregon, a scholarship program that covers tuition and fees for up to four years, she wouldn’t have the money to complete her degree.

“Without this award, I don’t think I would be in college right now,” Winfrey said. “As cheesy as it sounds, without this award I wouldn’t be able to pursue my dreams.”

PathwayOregon began with a cohort of 415 freshmen in 2008. Brooks said the 2015 cohort is estimated to have over 700 freshmen. As of fall 2013, 1,026 of the 1,629 PathwayOregon students identified as first-generation college students and about 39 percent identified as students of color.

The number of freshmen entering the university with a PathwayOregon scholarship has fluctuated throughout the years. While there was a cohort of 415 freshmen in 2008, the year the Great Recession impacted the country, the cohort number increased slightly to 440 freshmen in 2009. After rising and falling for the next few years, the smallest PathwayOregon cohort was in 2012, when only 395 freshmen entered the program.

The scholarship program is funded by federal, state and university grants and scholarships. In November 2014, PathwayOregon received a $25 million donation from Connie and Steve Ballmer, the former a UO graduate of ‘84 and member of the Board of Trustees, as a part of the university’s current public fundraising campaign. The capital campaign seeks to fundraise $2 billion for the university, which includes providing funds for PathwayOregon.

The university has raised $860 million to date for its campaign, according to Mike Andreasen, vice president of university advancement.

Roger Thompson, vice president for enrollment management, said that in addition to the Ballmers’ donation last year, the UO enrollment management department has raised $45 million in additional funds for the program.

But for some students, the award isn’t guaranteed to provide assistance for all four years. The PathwayOregon program is available to low-income Oregon residents who are Pell Grant-eligible, have at least a 3.4 high school GPA and will enter the university as a first-time freshman. As long as these students maintain their eligibility by making sufficient progress toward their degree during their time at the university, they will receive four years of college tuition and fees without paying a dime.

These students are still responsible for other expenses such as textbooks, housing and transportation. And because PathwayOregon’s students must receive a Pell Grant, a federally funded grant for low-income students, some recipients may lose their scholarship eligibility if their documented income on their FAFSA increases enough that they are no longer Pell-eligible.

However, Thompson doesn’t have many concerns when it comes to students losing their eligibility.

“As long as you’re making good progress and your financial situation doesn’t massively change, then you can definitely continue in Pathway,” Thompson said.

Winfrey knows students who have lost their PathwayOregon scholarships for various reasons.

“I have seen people lose the award because their parents’ income has changed, and I have also seen people lose the award due to poor performance at the university,” Winfrey said.

Jim Brooks, director of financial aid and scholarships, said that even if a student becomes ineligible to receive financial assistance from PathwayOregon, they do not lose access to the program’s academic support. Students are paired with an advisor who helps them select courses and plan a course toward graduating in four years. When needed, counselors provide outreach to students if they’re a few credits behind track or need academic assistance.

“To me, it’s an amazing and rewarding position to have,” said Jeff Ransford, one of seven PathwayOregon advisors. “I think one of the things I’ve enjoyed the most is having the chance to work with students and have an impact on their experience.”

Usually, first-year students meet with their PathwayOregon advisor once in the school year to receive academic guidance, Ransford said. If they need help with schoolwork or classes, students can access services such as tutoring resources exclusively offered to PathwayOregon recipients.

“It’s comforting for a lot of students to know that if there’s ever a question about anything, they can start by coming here,” Ransford said.

These resources are still available to students who lose financial aid due to changes in income or academic performance.

“They still remain a part of the program and still receive other support from the PathwayOregon staff,” Brooks said.

If students are not making satisfactory academic progress or lose their Pell Grant eligibility and have special circumstances that caused them to become ineligible for PathwayOregon, they can file an appeal to the Office of Student Financial Aid and Scholarships to explain why they still need assistance from the program.

Although not every single Pell Grant recipient is guaranteed a scholarship, the program plans to provide assistance in the future to an ever-growing number of Oregon students so they can focus on their academic goals instead of scraping pennies to get by. The program hopes to remove certain eligibility criteria so that all Pell-eligible Oregon residents can receive a PathwayOregon scholarship. One requirement that Brooks considers unnecessary as the program continues to grow is the 3.4 high school GPA.

“We can pull back off of that,” Brooks said. “And we did that this fall because we had additional funds… As we continue to fundraise, we’ll open that up some more.”

As PathwayOregon expands and develops, the future of the program is expected to grow in size and depth as it focuses even more on assisting students in their academic goals.

“Our goal always with PathwayOregon is to expand the number of students that we serve … [and] expand the success of the program to ensure that more students are retained from year-to-year and more students overall meet their goal of graduation,” PathwayOregon Interim Director Grant Schoonover said.

Thompson agreed.

“The future [of PathwayOregon] is incredibly bright.”

Please consider donating to the Emerald. We are an independent non-profit dedicated to supporting and educating this generation's best journalists. Your donation helps pay equipment costs, travel, payroll, and more!