Today, too many students of all ages are struggling to get ahead in Oregon's colleges and universities.

Parents with kids in their late teens and early twenties may know what my wife Laurie and I are currently going through. At the end of summer, two of our four kids will be heading back to college or taking the next step in their careers. And in the next few years, our two other kids will make important decisions about life beyond high school.

We all face challenges that come with this part of parenthood. However, I keep asking myself these questions: What can I do to help my kids succeed as they find their way? And how can the state of Oregon help all families who wish to pursue higher education or advance in their careers?COURTESY PHOTO - Wagner

Today, too many students of all ages are struggling to get ahead in Oregon's colleges and universities. The facts are troubling: Students who grow up in lower income families are statistically half as likely to get a college degree than their wealthier peers. College-going rates for Oregonians of color lag behind rates for white Oregonians. Nationally, nearly one-third of degree non-completers name mental health challenges as a reason for leaving college.

Students in higher education deserve better. I'm writing to you to ask you to take action — you can help us make sure everyone has the chance to get ahead in Oregon's colleges and universities and advance toward a meaningful career.

Before my time serving in the Legislature, I had long worked on education issues in our community. I spent a decade advocating for Oregon's teachers, faculty, health care workers and academic support workers. I then worked at Portland Community College, overseeing community outreach and the PCC Foundation.

While working at Portland Community College, two of my proudest accomplishments were starting the legislative internship program and supporting the establishment of the DREAMers Resource Center. I found myself constantly impressed by the grit and determination of too many students up against long odds. Students balancing multiple jobs, confronted by child care needs, food and housing insecurity and mental health challenges were all too common. We cannot continue to gamble with the futures of students facing hardships while in school.

That's why I co-chief sponsored legislation to create the Joint Task Force for Student Success for Underrepresented Students in Higher Education, along with Senator Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, and Representative Teresa Alonso Leon, D-Woodburn.

So far, students, faculty, administrators and other staff have joined the Task Force at meetings in every corner of the state — in Portland, Gresham, Eugene, Monmouth, La Grande, Ontario, White City, Ashland and Salem — to share valuable information about their experience in higher education. Later this year, the Task Force will deliver its report to the Legislature, making recommendations to help Oregon's colleges and universities better serve all Oregonians.

The task force will help Oregon's public universities and community colleges ensure a supportive campus culture for underrepresented students, identify ways to promote equitable student success and create pipelines that diversify Oregon's workforce and promote successful careers. By making education more accessible for everyone, we will continue to build a stronger economy around the state, one that works for working families and continues to provide opportunities for those looking for opportunity in Oregon.

During the 2023 legislative session, let's work together to deliver on policies that will help more Oregonians get ahead. The recommendations from the student voice task force will include important next steps to make sure our public institutions of higher education are serving every Oregonian to the highest standard. When the Legislature discusses these proposals in the 2023 session, I am asking for you to voice your support, share your perspectives, come out and engage with the public process, and make sure we're providing the ladder of success that every Oregonian deserves.

Rob Wagner is the Oregon Senate majority leader representing District 19, which includes Lake Oswego and West Linn. He is a Lake Oswego resident.

You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.

Have a thought or opinion on the news of the day? Get on your soapbox and share your opinions with the world. Send us a Letter to the Editor!