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EO Media Group Educators say years of budget cuts have left Oregon community colleges without adequate support staff to improve student outcomes.

A just-released audit and a Senate bill are windows on the bind that community colleges face after more than a decade of financial squeeze and paltry state support.

The audit by the Secretary of State — “Community Colleges: Targeted Investments Could Improve Student Completion Rates” — notes Oregon’s low standing for community colleges’ student completion rates. It reports that programs designed to generate degree completion fail to reach most students.

The audit recommends devoting assets, both financial and logistical, to move more students to degree completion.

Meanwhile, in the legislature’s waning days, a triumvirate of legislators is promoting Senate Bill 81, which is termed Last Dollar In. Modeled on the Tennessee Promise program, the bill would effectively make community college tuition free, by using federal Pell Grant money and state funds. The sponsors are Democratic sens. Mark Haas and Tobias Reed and Republican Rep. Mark Johnson.

Citing information that also appears in the state audit, college leaders say that the Last Dollar In concept could swamp under-equipped Oregon community colleges.

Noting that he is “a strong proponent of the intent to increase access and affordability, former state legislator and Clatsop Community College President Larry Galizio points out that, “Because funding has been paltry for so long, we don’t have the capacity — counselors and advisers — to help students get good plans or the understanding of how to navigate Oregon higher education.” To survive the recession, Clatsop College took drastic measures, which included reducing the number of academic programs and the size of the teaching staff.

The Secretary of State’s audit makes a similar point. “Community colleges have few resources to devote to student success initiatives.”

A holistic approach appears to be the only way out of the box into which Oregon has put community colleges. Moving toward a free tuition program without increased financial support to increase advising and counseling capacity would not achieve the results the Secretary of State’s audit recommends.

This story first appeared in the Oregon Capital Insider newsletter. To subscribe, go to oregoncapitalinsider.com

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