Bonamici invites top Democrat on U.S. House committee to Portland meetings.

Oregon students share similar difficulties with their national peers about restricted access to and the rising cost of education beyond high school, a key congressional Democrat says.

Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott, the top-ranking member of his party on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, made the observation after a couple of Portland-area meetings arranged by Oregon Rep. Suzanne Bonamici. She also sits on the committee.

One meeting was at the Rock Creek campus of Portland Community College, where students, higher education and workforce training officials discussed not only student finances but also college completion and career readiness.

The other was at Portland State University, where the discussion focused on the affordability of child care and the advocacy of family-friendly policies in a changing workplace.

“I am glad to see him here to hear about some of the things Oregon is doing,” Bonamici said.

“We have a lot of challenges ahead, but these are critical issues for us to address.

“I invited Mr. Scott — a congressional leader on education and workforce issues — to see how the Oregon approach of collaboration and innovation can help solve complicated problems. We will continue our shared efforts to craft policies that give children, young people, and working families the support they need to succeed.”

The committee has brokered bipartisan compromises on the renewal of federal aid to primary and secondary education in the Student Success Act and renewal of the Older Americans Act. Both have passed Congress and been signed by President Barack Obama.

Renewal of federal spending authority for higher education, including financial aid to students, may be tougher with Republican majorities in Congress.

“On policy, we probably can agree,” said Scott, who has represented Virginia’s 3rd District (Richmond) since 1993. “The problem is that access costs money. So if it is going to mean anything, you have to come up with a lot of money.”

Chief among those federal programs is Pell Grants, which constitute basic aid for low-income students, most of them from families with annual incomes of $20,000 or less.

“Low-achieving, high-income students are able to go to college much easier than high-achieving, low-income students,” Scott said. “If our democracy is going to mean anything, we have to make opportunities available to everybody.”

Yet he said Pell Grants, which covered 75 percent of the cost of attending a public institution a decade ago, now cover barely a third – and even less for a student at a private institution.

The maximum Pell Grant for the coming academic year is $5,815.

“A lot of students are coming to college without any meaningful parental support, because parents cannot afford it,” Scott said. “So the difference is made up by student loans, and students are coming out (of college) with tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands in loan debt. Low-income students are unwilling to incur that kind of debt.”

Student finances

Scott and Bonamici heard from two PCC students on those issues.

Bound for the University of Oregon, Hassan Ali said that though he has not needed to borrow money so far, he knows plenty of other students who have done so.

Megan Ruble said she has had to take out loans even though she qualifies for a Pell Grant, and because her husband is a military veteran with a disability, veterans’ education assistance.

“It is so important for high school kids to know they can do this,” she said.

Oregon lawmakers in 2015 created the Oregon Promise, a limited program based on one in Tennessee, which will allow some recent high school graduates with a 2.5 grade point average to attend community college almost free starting this fall. They must pay a $50 fee and apply for federal student aid.

Lawmakers set aside $10 million for the pilot project.

“We probably do not have the resources to do the Oregon Promise for all students,” said Ben Cannon, executive director of the Higher Education Coordinating Commission.

Scott has proposed a national version along the lines of a proposal Obama made in his 2015 State of the Union address.

“It is one way low-income students can get a four-year education if they go to a community college the first two years and then transfer,” he said. “It’s something we can afford and should be part of our higher education reauthorization. But the challenge for higher education right now is affordability — and that means we have to come up with some money.”

Kate Kinder, a workforce development manager at PCC, said more money should go to help older students who enroll in community colleges long after leaving high school and lack financial support other than their own earnings.

Other issues

The PCC panel touched on two other issues: Career readiness and college completion.

“We have a hard time finding people,” said Tony Erickson, chief operating officer of Oregon Aero in Scappoose and chairman of the workforce investment board for a five-county region.

Andrew McGough, executive director of Worksystems Inc., which operates in Multnomah and Washington counties, said there are 800 unfilled jobs at Oregon Health & Science University.

Sandra Fowler-Hill, PCC Rock Creek president, said a successful model can be found in PCC’s decade-long partnership with Caterpillar dealers, who sponsor 24 students for two years of study and on-the-job internships.

Others on the panel discussed college completion rates, which in Oregon were 38.7 percent over four years and 59.2 percent in six years, based on 2013 data released by the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2015. Both figures are slightly higher than the national averages of 33.3 percent and 57.6 percent.

“We need to help students when they arrive,” said Amy Magnussen, guidance coordinator at Clatsop Community College.

She and Sukhwant Jhaj, a vice provost at Portland State, said a lot of incoming students – particularly minorities -- face difficulties they did not encounter in high school in their home communities.

“Doing more of the same is not going to produce the kind of results we are after,” Jhaj said.

Oregon in 2014 received a seven-year federal grant, at $2.6 million per year, to help middle and high school students from rural communities to succeed in college.

One of the programs supported by the grant is Oregon GEAR UP at Oregon State University, directed by Stephanie Carnahan.

“I know I am singing to the choir, but it’s nice to have an appreciative ear,” she said.

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