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Education changes lives and opens doors to opportunity that benefit the greater community. A recent economic impact study shows a return of $3.70 in higher future earnings for every dollar that PCC students invest in their education.

That intersection marking the close of one year and the beginning of the next serves as a ripe time for reflection. And as I look back at 2017 and ahead to the new year we've entered, it is with gratitude, pride and enthusiasm that I pen this column.

Last year produced an array of successes for Portland Community College, Oregon's largest post-secondary institution, serving more than 75,000 full- and part-time students. First, a big thank you to voters within PCC's service area, who approved the college's bond measure in the November election. PCC provides an affordable option to many students who would not otherwise be able to attend college. Your investment and support of PCC enables us to educate the workforce of tomorrow — and this benefits our entire community.

Oregon is a state committed to sustainability and green technologies, and PCC is doing its part. For instance, reducing our energy consumption by 65 percent per square foot since 2006. Our efforts were honored this fall; PCC received the Second Nature Climate Leadership Award for two-year colleges, a national recognition of innovative and advanced leadership in sustainability and climate mitigation.

This was followed by an invitation to attend a conference in Bonn, Germany, as a part of "We Are Still In," or WASI, a non-federal, subnational group committed to upholding the Paris Climate Agreement. The conference hosted the next round of United Nations climate negotiations. WASI, meanwhile, organized the U.S. Climate Action Center, a first-ever pavilion and forum for American leaders to convene and share their contributions to address climate change. Witnessing such international cooperation was inspiring, and our participation made it clear that PCC, and higher education overall, plays an important role in the search for solutions.

Yet another success emerged in the midst of controversy. In the wake of federal policy changes, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) protection was in jeopardy. For the past five years, DACA has given nearly 800,000 young Americans called "Dreamers," who were brought to the United States as children, the legal protections they need to work and study here despite the immigration status of their parents.

Through the Oregon Immigrant and Refugee Funders Collaborative, Meyer Memorial Trust awarded PCC's Foundation a $50,000 grant to launch the DREAM Center (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) at PCC's Rock Creek Campus. The new center, which will be instrumental in serving greater Washington County, is the first of its kind at any Oregon community college or university. It will provide outreach, education, advocacy and community resources for undocumented and DACA students and their families.

And with this approach front and center — one of providing help, support and encouragement, especially to our most vulnerable, low income and first generation to college students — PCC has entered 2018.

Our goal is to become Oregon's "Opportunity College," offering an educational experience that widens the pathway to opportunity for all of the students we serve. We know that two-thirds of all jobs by the year 2020 will require some level of postsecondary education or specialized training. We also know that community college students have to work more and study less due to their financial situations; many students also struggle with food and housing insecurity. Our task, then, is to make higher education both accessible and feasible, so that students can afford to complete their studies.

Research shows wrap-around support services — advising, tutoring, coaching, mentoring — that complement students' academic programs improve their chances for academic success and graduation. And graduating increases their chance for employment, enabling them to build better lives for themselves and their families.

Using this data, PCC has nested identified services into a handful of innovative programs that empower students through personalized support — with astounding results. Future Connect, a scholarship and support program for low-income, first generation PCC students, is one such example. Future Connect boosts college completion or transfer rates within three years by 11 percent, thanks in great part to embedded wrap-around services.

And to further our commitment to equitable student success, PCC has joined Achieving the Dream, a non-governmental, national community college movement. Like PCC, ATD believes that access to high quality education, in an inclusive environment, is imperative for the continued advancement of a strong democracy and workforce. With the help of ATD resources, our college will be better positioned to increase student success rates, without lowering academic standards, and identify and bridge key regional workforce skills gaps so that students are prepared for success in college, work and life.

Education changes lives and opens doors to opportunity that benefit the greater community. A recent economic impact study shows a return of $3.70 in higher future earnings for every dollar that PCC students invest in their education. Taxpayers and the community at large see similar results: Taxpayers experience a 5.3 benefit-cost ratio, while PCC's service area nets $12.50 in benefits for every dollar invested in a PCC education due to reduced crime, lower unemployment and increased health and well-being.

And so PCC enters 2018 with optimism and hope — for the ability, in wide-ranging ways, to contribute to a brighter future for Oregon.

Mark Mitsui has been president of Portland Community College since September 2016.

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