Reporting on the connections between education and work

Providing holistic support is good for students—and good for colleges, too.

Wrap-around supports are essential if colleges want to help more students succeed, writes Mark Mitsui, president of Portland Community College. And those supports don’t have to be a cost center—but can actually provide returns.

Editor’s note: Oregon passed legislation three years ago, creating the Pathways to Opportunity initiative, led by Portland Community College. The work brings together a coalition of all 17 community colleges, state agencies, philanthropists, and anti-poverty advocates to expand the federal, state, and local resources available to low-income students.

We asked PCC president Mark Mitsui to share his perspective on what success will look like for the Pathways initiative, what’s required to sustain it, and why he recently joined the Taskforce on Higher Education and Opportunity in order to support that work.

To expand opportunity in Oregon, or in any state, we need to focus more on holistic student support services. That’s the idea behind Pathways to Opportunity. At first blush, that kind of investment might seem to be resource intensive—but the return on that investment is significant. 

An example of a short-term return can be seen through our work with the SNAP Employment and Training Program (STEP). By better coordinating with the program, Oregon’s community colleges are projecting they will receive an additional $5.9 million in new matching dollars from the USDA that can then be used to provide holistic support to many students. 

In 2021, community colleges worked with Partners for a Hunger Free Oregon and the Department of Human Services to pass funding legislation that places a benefits navigator on each public community college and university campus in Oregon. Benefits navigators ensure that students can access local, state and federal resources to assist with food insecurity and houselessness — resources that those students are entitled to and that are likely to outweigh the investment in salaries.

The long-term returns to society are even greater. According to recent economic impact data for PCC, for every dollar invested in our college, the community receives a greater than $8 return in reduced social costs and the increased wage-earning power of our students.

It’s critical that we continue to have public investment to make Pathways to Opportunity a success because basic needs insecurity is the major barrier to access and completion for a large percentage of our students. This work is crucial at community colleges like PCC: 19 percent of our students who responded to a Hope Center survey said they experienced houselessness in the past year, 41 percent were dealing with food insecurity, and more than 50 percent have had housing insecurity.

Increasing access to benefits and resources is key to addressing basic needs insecurity and improving economic mobility for low-income, rural and students of color. The data are clear that education and postsecondary credentials are essential for getting back to work after a recession. They are integral to an inclusive recovery that moves families out of poverty. Communities of color, low-income and rural Oregonians have not had equitable access to opportunity.

The past year and a half has been especially challenging for our students, who have coped with COVID-19 and wildfire natural disasters. Without decisive actions that increase access to community colleges, essential resources and quality jobs, our students stand to be impacted for generations to come.

And our students are not alone. Similar issues—of houselessness, hunger and challenges specific to the pandemic—affect many college students in the United States. Our membership with the new task force is about partnering with other institutions to find and share solutions for our student populations. The lessons we learn from this work will hopefully be applicable across higher education institutions and in communities throughout the country.

Mark Mitsui is president of Portland Community College and a member of the Taskforce on Higher Education and Opportunity.

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