College Dreams: A Community Foundation With a Big Focus on Scholarships for Local Students

Oregon state university. photo: Bob Pool/shutterstock

Oregon state university. photo: Bob Pool/shutterstock

The Oregon Community Foundation is a huge grantmaker in Oregon with multiple offices throughout the state. It has emerged as the top grantmaker in Oregon in recent years, with assets of $1.9 billion, comprising more than 2,800 permanent funds, also making it one of the top 10 community foundations in the U.S. based on assets.

OCF’s growth is yet another example of a trend we write about often: the explosion of regional philanthropy in recent years, as new wealth created outside leading U.S. cities is harnessed to giving.

In Oregon, these resources are making a difference. OCF offers statewide, geographic area-specific, and topical grants, as well as advised and designated fund programs, and it has one of the largest private scholarship programs of its kind in the nation. The scope of OCF’s grantmaking here is unusual and worth a close look.

OCF awarded more than $118 million in 2017, and about $10 million was funneled into scholarships for 3,250 students. Its scholarships are managed in part through a collaboration with the state’s Office of Student Access and Completion that’s been in place for nearly three decades. OCF has 500 funds focused on making higher education and training more accessible through scholarships. By contracting with OSAC to administer more than 380 scholarship programs, it enables many students to complete one form to apply for funding from OCF along with other public and private sources.

While scholarships alone cannot solve the growing issues of tuition hikes and student debt—a bit more on that below—foundations like OCF that are committed to backing scholarships on a large scale still play an essential and life-changing role in many students’ lives. Along with its scholarships, OCF backs two local programs to increase the number of students who succeed in post-secondary education and employment: Douglas County Partners for Student Success and Better Together in Central Oregon. These initiatives focus on higher education, internships and job placement.

And in addition to its OSAC partnership, OCF also independently administers a group of scholarships that are only available in certain areas or to students of certain cultural identities, such as Latino, black or Native American. For example, this group of funds includes the Earl and Jane Ferguson Scholarship Fund for graduates of Klamath County high schools. It has awarded more than $65,000 to Klamath County students since 1999, including $4,000 in the summer of 2018 for the 2017-2018 school year.

“This contribution is very important in allowing me to attend my dream college. I look forward to being able to study a major that I have had a passion for since I was a little boy. With my career, I hope to one day make advancements that will come back to benefit the Klamath Basin,” said recipient Blake Haigh, who wants to study animal science and work in the agricultural industry. The three other recipients plan to study criminal justice, kinesiology and agricultural science.

“My family had needs when I was growing up, and the community helped us. Jane and I felt that if we were ever in a position to pay the community back, helping those less fortunate, we would,” Earl Ferguson said, in explaining why he and his wife established the scholarship fund.

The amount awarded through OCF’s individual scholarships has more than doubled in recent years. Klamath County students have received about $700,000 in the past five years, and since 2008, OCF has awarded more than $8.5 million to students in Jackson, Josephine, Klamath and Lake counties.

“These funds come at a crucial time for Oregon’s students, as they could face tuition increases of 3 to 4 percent for the 2018-2019 academic school year,” OCF states.

As we’ve reported, tuition increases continue to rise throughout the U.S., and scholarship giving, while essential to many students, does not address or deter this process. One reason that tuition rises in public universities is because of long-term disinvestments in these institutions by state legislatures, which have instead often prioritized tax cuts for the wealthy and business. While foundation-backed advocacy can play an important role in countering this trend, many funders refrain from getting involved in partisan battles over fiscal and budgetary matters and instead fund downstream to address the symptoms of this systemic issue.

Meanwhile, U.S. college students and grads keep sinking further into debt. Outstanding student debt reached $1.5 trillion in 2018. The good news: Some funders, like the Ayers and Lumina foundations, are stepping up to tackle student debt and back related areas like college completion programs.