Willamette University President Steve Thorsett speaks at the kick-off for a university match program for Oregon College Savings Plan account holders. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Oregon students who enroll at Willamette University can get up to $40,000 towards tuition and school expenses under a new program available to incoming freshmen next year.

The university is partnering with the state-run Oregon College Savings Plan to match student contributions up to $5,000 per semester in hopes of attracting more Oregonians to Willamette.

“It’s been a priority for a while,” university President Steve Thorsett said.

[ Help build Salem Reporter and local news - SUBSCRIBE ]

Thorsett said the university used to have more students from all corners of Oregon, including rural areas and those outside the Interstate 5 corridor, but that number has fallen.

About one-quarter of Willamette’s incoming freshmen last fall were from Oregon. A greater number, 147 in total, came from California.

Thorsett hopes the program will help “make Oregon’s oldest university accessible to a new generation of Oregon leaders.”

Incoming freshmen who have had an Oregon college savings account for at least four years are eligible. The accounts are state-sponsored and come with tax benefits, allowing parents, relatives, friends or a student to save for later education.

They’ll have the amount they come into Willamette with matched dollar-for-dollar up to $40,000 over eight semesters.

Over the past three years, Thorsett said the university has prioritized raising money for financial aid programs and encouraged alumni to give toward that effort to make college more affordable.

Last year, Willamette raised almost $2 million in unrestricted funds, which can be used for financial aid, up from $1.5 million three years ago, Thorsett said.

The college savings match is one new program they’ll use the additional money on. Willamette administrators aren’t sure how many students might be eligible, since college savings accounts are reported to the financial aid office as part of total family assets.

State Treasurer Tobias Read, a Willamette graduate, said his office hopes to work with other colleges and universities across the state on similar programs.

“This could be a game-changer,” he said of the partnership with Willamette.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.