In Oregon, a Modest Investment In Student Supports Yields Promising Strategies

A majority of U.S. states have established aspirational postsecondary attainment goals, making strong pipelines from K-12 to postsecondary particularly important. Oregon’s goal of 80 percent of the population earning a credential by 2025 is the most bold among them. However, despite increasing the number of Oregonians with a credential by nearly seven percentage points between 2005 and 2017, the state still needs to increase rates by another 30 percentage points to reach its goal. It is clear that bold investments in student supports are needed in order to reach this goal.

Since 2015, the Oregon legislature has invested $9.3 million in grants aiming to increase enrollment and completion rates for first-generation and low-income community college students. Initially, the investment was an effort to expand the  successful Future Connect program at Portland Community College (PCC), an ATD Network college. Future Connect combines high school outreach, financial support, and personalized coaching to help first-generation and low-income students achieve postsecondary success.

The first investment of $3.1 million was made via HB 3063 (2015) and the same amount has been added to Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission (HECC) budget for each of the subsequent biennia. The funds are disbursed by HECC through a competitive grantmaking process open to the state’s 17 community colleges. Over the past four years, these First-Generation Student Success Grants (FGSS) have funded a broad range of outreach and holistic student support strategies from the innovative to the familiar. 

Understanding the power of networks and the importance of peer learning in order to ensure the greatest possible impact of these funds, PCC has included resources in each of its grant applications to convene a community of practice for all grantees statewide. Since fall of 2016, PCC has contracted with the staff of Gateway to College National Network (now part of Achieving the Dream) to facilitate the exchange of best practices between grantee colleges and document their collective learning. These grants, and the community of practice that has been built among grantees, have accelerated the expansion of practices that improve the odds of success for community college students. 

The educators who designed and implemented these strategies have leveraged limited resources, existing services, and other funds to create new opportunities and crucial supports for students. Colleges ranging in size from a few hundred students to tens of thousands have come together to fine-tune their efforts around focused outreach, material supports, and personalized coaching. Equitable outcomes require creating viable opportunities for students who would otherwise face barriers to enrolling in postsecondary education. Strategies such as culturally-specific bridge programs and scholarships combined with coaching have enabled colleges to reach more than 15,000 potential students, substantially expand local scholarships and supplemental funds, and connect students to a broad range of other social and financial services. 

During the 2018-19 academic year, in order to document the impact of these investments, the Ford Family Foundation funded a third-party evaluation of the FGSS grants. This evaluation, conducted by Public Profit, features thorough descriptions of the diverse programming in place around the state and clear recommendations for state policy makers. Despite the benefit that these grants have created, $3.1 million every two years is a modest investment toward the state’s bold goals. Many colleges in the state have not been awarded funds and the resources are insufficient to fully fund applications that are accepted. HECC calculates the cost to provide these services at the scale needed to achieve Oregon’s goals is $70M per biennium. In early 2020, HECC will release an RFP for the next round of FGSS grants. These resources will again fall well short of the need, but they will provide critical support for thousands of students. Oregon has yet to make the big leap needed to achieve an 80% postsecondary attainment rate, but its community colleges continue to take consistent steps forward with every dollar available. And those dollars mean a stronger pipeline to and through college for more first-generation and low-income students.

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