Shelia Diaz-Gutierrez wanted to be the first in her family to attend college.
But her high school academic counselor told her that there were few resources for her because she’s an undocumented U.S. resident.
Because she’s undocumented, she can’t receive federal financial aid nor participate in federal support programs for aspiring college students.
At the time, she felt dejected. Diaz said that she had the drive and intelligence for college, but if her counselor couldn’t find a way for her to attend, then how could she? “I didn’t really question it or doubt it,” she said.
Feeling hopeless, she let her grades slip and eventually left high school without a diploma.
But after the Oregon Legislature approved the Oregon Promise grant in 2015, Diaz became one of thousands of Oregon students who used the program to attend college without having to take out five-to-six-figure loans.
The Promise is a state grant that can pay a portion — or even all — of a student’s tuition toward one of Oregon’s 17 community colleges. The lawmakers who crafted it had a simple premise: If you make it easy and affordable for students to apply to college, then they’ll go to college. And for low-income and first-generation students, the program is especially impactful.
During the Promise’s inaugural year in 2016, more than 19,000 students applied to the Promise — “nearly a third of the high school graduating class of 2016,” according to a study by research nonprofit Education Northwest. About 10,000 were eligible for the program, and nearly 7,000 students received the grant, according to a January 2018 state report. The average grant size in 2016 was $650.
And because it’s money coming from the state and not the federal government, Diaz was able to get the funds she needed to pay for college. The Promise is one of the few support programs open to undocumented students to help them pay for college. Diaz currently attends Portland Community College through the Promise.
“It puts community college or college within the realm of possibility, especially for those students who maybe didn't think that they were college material or that they wouldn't be able to have the resources to go to college. It opens the door,” said Roberto Suarez, Portland Community College’s Oregon Promise manager.
With the Promise, Oregon joined a growing movement of states — including Tennessee, Indiana, Oklahoma, Maryland, Hawaii, New York, Washington and California — that are subsidizing tuition for aspiring community college students.
The study by Education Northwest found that not only does the Promise give students the funds they need to pay for college, it also gives hope to students who are doubtful that they can attend college.
“Just the messaging around free college can maybe induce students to start thinking more about college who maybe never thought about it before,” said Michelle Hodara, the lead researcher behind the study.
It also found that almost 70 percent of first-generation students and nearly half of all other students agreed or strongly agreed that hearing about the Promise made them think more about attending college.
The study defines first-generation students as those without immediate family members, including parents, guardians or siblings, that have college degrees or certificates.
Though only a sample of Promise students were surveyed, Hodara said that she was surprised by how clearly patterns appeared in such a small sample.
“It wasn't just one question that was different,” Hodara said. “It was every single question. And so, that was a more definitive finding that for the first-generation respondents, the Oregon Promise seemed to have a greater impact on their lives.”
The study also found that nearly one-third of first-generation students who received the Promise said that they wouldn’t have gone to college without it.
“What the Promise is trying to do is convince young students and their families that, whatever they've heard about the costs of higher education and the barrier that poses for them, they can do it,” said Ben Cannon, who heads Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission, which manages the program.
Barriers to attending college
For low-income and first-generation students, the challenges of applying to and entering college are compounded. First-generation students may not know where to go in search of resources that could help them apply, and they might not even be aware of them in the first place.
This was the case for Diaz, whose legal status meant that she couldn’t receive federal financial aid. For other students, the Promise is their safety net. The high costs of attending a four-year college coupled with the uncertainty of winning scholarships means that college plans often change.
Fabiola Birrueta, for example, didn’t plan on attending a community college after high school. She wanted to go to a four-year college to study marketing. But when Chemeketa Community College offered her the most money in scholarships compared to other universities she applied to, she decided to make the “smart choice.”
“It's pretty much the same education you could get anywhere else, but for a cheaper price,” said Birrueta, now a sophomore at Chemeketa.
She received the Promise during her second year, unlike most Promise recipients who receive the grant before, but she was still ecstatic about it. Her other scholarships helped out with her first year, but the Promise kept her from paying out of pocket for tuition during her second year.
But she’s far from the only Promise student to apply out of financial necessity. Duy Nguyen, a senior at Reynolds High School, applied for the Promise to save money. (Duy has no relation to this article’s author.)
“It’s cheap,” Nguyen said. He added that he wouldn’t have to be in debt for as long as he would have been if he had enrolled at a four-year college instead.
Without the Promise, it would have been a lot harder for his low-income family to afford college and for him to study nursing. He’s an honor roll student, but the process of applying for scholarships is time-consuming, and the scholarships he might win would most likely not be enough to pay for the tuition at a four-year college, he said. For him, the Promise — and community college — is a safety net.
How it works
Oregon’s program subsidizes tuition for high school graduates and GED recipients. Other requirements students must fulfill to be eligible for the Promise include: earning a 2.5 or higher GPA, starting college classes within six months of graduation and having fewer than 90 college credits already under their belt.
To make it easy, applying to the Promise online takes less than an hour, a relatively short amount of time compared to scholarship applications and college essays. Birrueta and others said it was pretty straightforward.
Laura Queirolo, a teacher at South Eugene High School, said that the Promise is a great option for high schoolers who either haven’t developed the academic skills, such as time management and research abilities, to go to a four-year college or who want to learn a technical trade skill.
“I think every high school senior should apply… and at least lock that in so that they have the option when the time comes,” Queirolo said.
She teaches AVID, the Advancement Via Individual Determination program, which is a program that helps students learn the academic skills they’ll need for college.
Queirolo said the requirement to enroll within six months of receiving a high school diploma or GED is vital to the program’s success.
“Kids who aren't sure if they're going to get accepted and don't know how they're going to pay for college are looking kind of for a way out,” Queirolo said. “Taking that gap year or avoiding school is one way that they do that.”
Across Oregon, early numbers are showing the Promise’s potential: Nearly 10,000 18-year-old Promise students have enrolled in community colleges, according to a January 2018 report from the Oregon HECC.
And though the Promise isn’t aimed at low-income students, about half of the Promise’s first cohort of more than 6,700 came from low-income families, according to a December 2016 report analyzing the Promise’s impact.
According to the study, 75 percent of first-generation students surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that the Promise helped them “see that college could be affordable,” while 64 percent of other students said likewise.
Having a college degree leads to gains in income, according to an Education Northwest article from Hodara. Women workers with bachelor’s degrees earn about $20,000 more than equivalent full-time workers with high school diplomas. Men with bachelor’s degrees earn about $30,000 more per year.
The study from Education Northwest also found that students, parents and high school staff members said they felt unclear about the details of the program.
Many students thought that the grant would cover tuition completely, didn’t understand how to reapply for the grant or expected a higher award than what they actually received. And even though the Promise only applies to Oregon community colleges, 47 percent of those surveyed thought that the Promise would pay for tuition at public four-year Oregon colleges.
Part of this can be attributed to how relatively new the program was, having been approved by the Oregon Legislature in July 2015 and planned to start that fall, Hodara said.
“One of the lessons for policymakers is if you approve a program to start that year, there's going to be a little bit of a learning curve, because to roll out a program of this nature takes more than a couple months,” Hodara said.
During the program’s second year in 2017, the number of submitted applications fell by about 18 percent, according to a January 2018 state report, which says this is “at least partly because of greater understanding” of the program.
Andrew Lee is a junior studying journalism at the University of Oregon. He transferred from PCC after two years of the Promise but wishes he had attended a four-year college instead and feels like it was a waste of time.
Lee could have afforded to go to an out-of-state college, but he opted to attend PCC to figure out what he wanted to study. He feels like he missed out on the typical freshman college experience by going to a community college.
“The face of everyone at community colleges [is] like, ‘I want to get out of here.’ Like everybody just goes in and gets out,” Lee said.
But for many students like Birrueta, the Promise was key to affording college.
“I was able to focus more on school rather than focusing on having to have a second job where it's like, I'm just finding a way to get money,” Birrueta said.