Community colleges strive to build skills, alleviate poverty in East County
Top administrators from community colleges serving East Multnomah County detailed looming budget cuts at their institutions as the colleges strive to help lift people out of poverty in the poorest area of the state.
"Education matters. It matters if you want to have a good job," said Jessica Howard, president of the southeast campus of Portland Community College at Division Street and 82nd Avenue.
Howard and Lisa Skari, president of Mt. Hood Community College spoke to the East Portland Chamber of Commerce last week.
PCC's Howard said the area from 82nd Avenue to West Gresham has the highest poverty rate anywhere in Oregon. And, she added, recovery from the 2008 recession has not been as strong there as in other areas.
Skari, who calls community colleges "democracy's colleges," pointed out that community colleges are one of the cheapest ways for low-income people to get degrees and skills that can increase their incomes and financial stability.
Wages are directly correlated to education, so the colleges serving this area strive to provide low-income residents with skills and degrees to lift them out of poverty, as well as to serve middle-class and other students. In fact, about 15-20% of MHCC students are getting a GED or gaining basic skills.
East Multnomah County residents have less education than in other areas of the metro area. About 50% of Portland residents have a four-year college degree, while only 21% of Gresham residents are so credentialed, she said.
Skari said about 35% of East Multnomah County residents spend more than 50% of their income on rent, leaving them with little funds for other expenses.
"We are the first responders in a recession," Howard said.
But when the economy is booming, fewer people head to community colleges, and instead go to work. So, enrollment has been declining at community colleges everywhere, which always happens when jobs are plentiful. At the same time, state funding for community colleges may fall short.
Annette Mattson, an MHCC board member, said the current state budget proposals call for $590 million for community colleges, but the institutions state-wide need at least $647 million to maintain current service levels.
"Sadly, we've heard things like 'well, the colleges can just raise tuition,' but that's more student debt" for some of the lowest-income students, Mattson said.
Portland Community College is cutting its budget 3% system-wide to fill a nearly $14 million hole in the ledger.
"We have had to jack up tuition and fees," Howard said.
PCC is raising tuition 4.5% to $116 per credit hour for next year and 6%, or $123 per credit hour, in the following year.
Mt. Hood Community College raised tuition $8 per credit hour, or 8%, starting with the summer term. Including fees, that puts the cost at $125.50 per credit hour. That will help fill the expected $6.4 million budget shortfall over the next two years. The college also plans to cut spending $1.7 million in each of those years.
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