Legislators are looking to smooth paths to higher education
The Legislature is trying to get a handle on how to help more Oregon students from diverse backgrounds into higher education. A school leaders roundtable Thursday boiled it down time and time again to wraparound services that fill in families’ gaps.
Oregon needs to empower families all along the education path and it needs to empower K-12 schools to provide more supports, Gresham-Barlow School Board Chair Mayra Gómez told legislators Thursday.
The American education system has traditionally been set up for a straight path from high school to college or a career, with supportive families who know the way and have the means for the journey. The Joint Task Force on Student Success for Underrepresented Students in Higher Education wants to help more students whose paths are studded with barriers: racism, high costs, gender and sexuality bias, language, trauma. The task force is asking how to remove barriers and create new routes for students with a range of needs.
“We are working hard to reimagine and look at what we can do better,” Rep. Teresa Alonso Leon, D-Woodburn, told a roundtable of school board members, community college representatives and education partners. Alonso Leon chairs the task force but is giving up her legislative seat soon to run for Oregon’s new congressional district.
Task force members are touring Oregon colleges over the next few months. They heard from area students, school staff and education leaders on Wednesday at Portland State University and on Thursday at Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham. Later in the month, legislators will travel to Lane Community College and Western Oregon University, with plans to visit colleges in eastern and southern Oregon.
Gómez said K-12 schools need to be part of the solution but many of the state’s K-12 requirements are not aligned to students’ needs. She said Gresham-Barlow School District’s students are asking for more classes in high school to help them with college, career and life.
One of the district’s responses, she said, is to look at creating a financial literacy class for credit. Students need more than just additional money to manage housing, food, child care, transportation and health care, whether in college or starting in the work world.
Gómez said the district’s goal is for students to define success for themselves and for the schools to give them sufficient information to make decisions about their futures. She said a key to that work is making sure students from underrepresented communities have teachers and counselors who understand their life experiences.
Gresham-Barlow Superintendent James Hiu said the road to higher education must start in the earliest grades. He said all students need to see themselves as potential college graduates even as they are learning the basics of reading and writing.
Hiu also said Oregon needs to do a better job of aligning K-12 resources with higher education programs to escort students along the way. Participants pointed to useful programs such as students taking college credits while in high school but said more alignment is needed.
A 2021 bill charged the task force with developing legislation and spending proposals for the 2023 Legislature. It must report to the Legislature by Dec. 15.
Sen. Michael Dembrow, a task force member and chair of the Senate Education Committee, said schools’ relationship-focused diversity, equity and inclusion efforts seem to offer a good model for increasing higher education participation. He said the trick is making sure those add-on kinds of programs aren’t first on the chopping block when budgets get tight.
The task force may look to the Student Success Act as a model of creating a mix of general support as well as funding dedicated to specific goals, said Dembrow, D-Portland.
The day’s activities were similar to when the Joint Student Success Committee toured the state, including small-group meetings with selected students. The students, some breaking into tears, shared with legislators how personal trauma, mental health struggles, homelessness, poverty, language barriers, racism and lack of college knowledge made pursuing a degree more difficult.
Students asked for support for the programs that help with food, shelter and personal care, as well as the ones that offer understanding and guidance for student groups underrepresented on campuses. Many students also talked about needing someone to show them the way because they are either on their own or the first in their family to enter college.
Students praised “navigators,” community college staff who help them find everything from classes to social services and housing.
Clackamas Community College President Tim Cook suggested the state needs to create “navigators” who can go into communities to show students and families the path to higher education.
In the end, Oregon must invert its thinking on getting students ready if it wants more students in higher education, he said.
“Colleges need to be student ready,” Cook said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA