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Federal aid is coming, but lawmaker is told that colleges would like help to maximize benefits.

PMG FILE PHOTO: PETER WONG - U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., after a Veterans Day ceremony in 2019 in Hillsboro. She heard from the presidents of Portland, Chemeketa and Clatsop community colleges and students during a virtual session on Friday, April 9.Community colleges and their students will benefit from an array of federal aid programs, but presidents and students told U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici they would like help maximizing their benefits.

President Joe Biden's pandemic recovery plan, which Congress passed and Biden signed on March 11, contains $40 billion for higher education — Oregon's share is estimated at $400 million — plus $39 billion nationally for child care, and other sums for vaccinations, food and housing assistance.

"These are challenging systems to navigate. We've been doing this for more than three years. We know we need benefit navigators to help students to do that," Mark Mitsui, president of Portland Community College, said during a conference call with Bonamici.

"Federal agencies are great, but they do not have the capacity to weave each other's benefits around students when they most need it to get the education and training they need."

Bonamici, a Democrat from Beaverton, met virtually with presidents and students from the three community colleges with the 1st District of northwest Oregon. PCC covers Portland west of the Willamette River, Washington County and part of Columbia County. Clatsop Community College and Chemeketa Community College, whose service area includes Yamhill County, also were represented.

Bonamici spent two years in community college before she earned bachelor's and law degrees from the University of Oregon.

"I understand how community colleges open the doors of opportunity for so many others, like Lane Community College did for me," she said in the April 9 call. "As we look to the future, I know community colleges will continue to be a key component of our educational system and our economic recovery."

Bonamici sits on the House Education and Labor Committee and its subcommittee on higher education, and leads a different subcommittee on civil rights and human services. She has been working on an overdue renewal of federal spending authority for higher education that will focus on affordability for students.

"We know higher education is a good investment," she said. "We need to make sure finances are not a barrier."

Pandemic hits hard

Enrollments in Oregon's community colleges took a sharp turn downward in the coronavirus pandemic — by almost 25% in 2020 from 2019 — although they are expected to rebound in about 18 months.

Mitsui said PCC took part in a Temple University survey that found two-thirds of PCC students experienced problems with food or housing during the pandemic — 18% reported they were homeless — and 46% of PCC students surveyed lost jobs.

"Those who were hanging on by their fingernails had to let go. That is where we saw a lot of folks disappear overnight when the recession hit," Mitsui, who said later he would stop down after five years as PCC's president, said. "These were big hits to the pocketbooks and educational opportunities for our students. We have been looking at how we can survive and support our students better."

Biden's plan provides for a doubling of the maximum federal Pell Grant for students. Emily Wanous, legislative director for the Oregon Student Association, said that step would help offset the underfunded Oregon Opportunity Grant program, money from which now goes to just one of every four students who qualify for it. But she also said jobs have to come back.

"More than ever, students are balancing three jobs part time here and there," she said. "It is really affecting their ability to graduate. We know that people are falling through the cracks."

Other aid needed

Tom Farrenkopf is leaving PCC to attend the University of Oregon in the fall. He said students, like others, are affected by high housing costs in Oregon, and he used the $1,400 stimulus he received as part of Biden's recovery plan to pay past-due rent.

"As we move forward, those students are going to need some sort of security so that we do not look at education houselessness," he said. "As it sits right now, all of that rent is going to come due and it's going to be due at once. I think that's not a burden many college students can bear."

A pending bill in the Oregon Legislature would allow eight more months (through February 2022) for renters to pay past-due rent without fear of evictions as of July 1, although they would have to remain current on rents after July 1. The bill does not forgive back rents owed.

State and federal assistance programs promise millions in aid for past-due rents.

Many community college students are working parents, and Bonamici said an expanded child tax credit should help them. Under Biden's plan, the existing credit increases for one year from $2,000 to $3,600 for each child under 6 — $3,000 for others under 19 — and converts it to a monthly payment from the Internal Revenue Service. The increase is projected to lift 40,000 Oregon children above the federal poverty line.

"We need to make it a permanent provision, which it is not in the American Rescue Plan," Bonamici said. "I know there is a commitment to keep working on it."

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