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Investment in higher education is essential for the future

Since November of last year, administrators, faculty, staff and students from community colleges and universities throughout Oregon have been busy meeting with legislators regarding the state’s investment in higher education.

Gov. John Kitzhaber has put forth a budget that earmarks $428 million for Oregon’s 17 community colleges for the 2013-2015 biennium. Those of us associated with the state’s community colleges have appreciated the positive direction of this budget — up from $395 million in the 2011-2013 biennium.

That said, our full-time enrollment over the past few years has skyrocketed: At Portland Community College alone, we’ve witnessed a 44 percent spike. The reality is that $428 million is insufficient to meet the needs of community college students across the state. As such, we were disappointed with the recent announcement from the co-chairs of the Ways and Means Committee that they had not recommended an increase to the governor’s budget for community colleges.

To prevent cuts to services and classes for our students, community colleges are continuing to lobby for a $510 million investment level from the state. At PCC, this funding level will enable the college to ensure student access and success, as well as improve our student outcomes and completions. Funding below this level will necessitate tuition increases, significant reductions in staffing and services, and cuts to programs that respond to business needs for a trained workforce.

Research indicates that communities that invest in higher education are more likely to have a prosperous economy, in part because those with higher education are more able to support themselves financially. The majority of family-wage jobs require education beyond high school.

Community colleges provide that pathway for many students, with career technical training for such jobs as nursing, machine manufacturing and welding. Additionally, community colleges offer transfer programs that serve as the gateway to universities and four-year institutions for thousands of our students.

For the past several years Oregon’s investment in higher education has declined significantly, in terms of the ratio of the budget to the number of students served. In fact, only four states — Colorado, New Hampshire, Vermont and Ohio — provide less taxpayer support per college student than Oregon, according to a recent report from the Association of State Higher Education Executive Officers.

As a means to make ends meet, several of Oregon’s community colleges have reluctantly approved tuition increases. This includes PCC. But we can’t continue to do this; we’ll be pricing students out of higher education if we continue down this path — and without community colleges, many of our students wouldn’t be able to attain education beyond high school or the careers that result from this education and training.

Furthermore, this will impede our ability to meet the governor’s “40-40-20” objective: That by 2025, 40 percent of the state’s adults have four-year college degrees, 40 percent have two-year degrees, and the remaining 20 percent have high school diplomas.

It is an ambitious target that will demand rethinking how we help students succeed at all levels along Oregon’s educational continuum.

To meet the 40-40-20 goal, community colleges must increase the number of its students who earn associate’s degrees and also the number that transfer to universities and four-year institutions. That requires keeping tuition rates affordable and maintaining investments and initiatives that improve student outcomes and ensure a quality education.

Now is the time to remind our legislators of the important role community colleges play in the state’s future and the negative impact a community college budget of $428 million will have on our students and our region. Portland Community College and representatives from Oregon’s 16 other community colleges will continue to advocate for a $510 million investment level — and we need your support.

To get involved, I encourage you to visit PCC’s newly launched microsite — opportunity.pcc.edu — for more information about the legislative session under way in Salem and to share your view about increased state investment in higher education.

Additionally, you can contact your legislative representative directly. If you’re unsure who your representative is, visit leg.state.or.us/findlegsltr, input your street address, and you’ll be able to find out.

We understand the importance of a trained, well-educated workforce to the prosperity and growth of our region’s businesses. Community colleges are uniquely poised to educate students, equipping them with skills to meet industry need and connecting-the-dots between secondary and post-secondary levels of education.

By sharing your voice and participating in the discussion, you’re enabling community colleges to continue creating an educated and trained workforce — one that will build a brighter future for Oregon.

Preston Pulliams is president of Portland Community College.



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