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Tim Cook, Mark Mitsui and Lisa Skari

Cook is president of Clackamas Community College. Mitsui is president of Portland Community College. Skari is president of Mt. Hood Community College

The year of the pandemic has been crushing, and community colleges and our students have not been spared. With a recession upon us and legislators drawing up the next biennium’s budget, we ask Oregon’s elected leaders to make a down payment on our recovery and invest in community colleges.

Community colleges are Oregon’s economic engine. Our alumni are the skilled workers who contribute to the health and vitality of the state in industries like health care, manufacturing and welding. To continue to train our future workforce well, we need legislative support – especially now.

When the pandemic hit last March, community colleges quickly moved most classes online. Limited in-person courses were offered for a handful of programs that could not be transitioned online, provided they met state and county health guidelines. Helping students continue their educational journeys to reach their goals in a safe and healthy environment is our top priority.

Yet many of our students are hurting. While the jolt of COVID-19 has been felt by all, it has disproportionately affected those who are lower-income, belong to underrepresented groups and work in unskilled jobs. Such labels fit many of those enrolled at a community college. A statewide survey last spring of community college students led by The Hope Center at Temple University found that:

  • 41% of respondents were food insecure in the prior 30 days;
  • 52% of respondents were housing insecure in the previous year; and
  • 20% of respondents were homeless in the previous year.

As community colleges strive to meet the needs of our marginalized populations, we also hear from business and industry partners who are desperate for a skilled and diverse workforce. This workforce will be essential to ride out the pandemic-created recession and get the state back on stable economic footing. With the pandemic, job losses and the recession bearing down on our state, a disinvestment in Oregon community colleges ­– resulting in higher tuition and cuts – is the worst possible option we can choose.

Our state’s community colleges, if adequately funded, can help every Oregon industry and community by training workers in a relatively short amount of time; improving the English skills of non-native speakers; and connecting Oregonians hardest-hit by the pandemic with crucial resources to meet their basic needs.

Investing in Oregon’s community colleges is also a wise fiscal strategy. In 2018-19, a statewide study for the Oregon Community Colleges Association found that a high school graduate’s earnings increase by more than $8,000 a year with an associate’s degree. Not only does that help the individual student, but the higher incomes earned collectively by hundreds of thousands of community college graduates translates into $1 billion-plus in greater tax revenue and increased productivity while reducing the need for government funded services by nearly $100 million.

While the coronavirus relief packages are of tremendous help, that financial support is finite. These federal dollars helped us invest in online resources to support health care education and expand support services for students.

But while one-time federal dollars can help in a crisis, biennial state funding is a critical investment in Oregonians’ future, and in the enduring health and wellness of our state.

As the Oregon Legislature grapples with ways to slow the pandemic and balance Oregon’s economy, we implore decision makers to see that community colleges are a critical part of the solution. Our students are Oregon’s essential workers, often simultaneously pursuing an education and caring for their families. An investment in them supports not only the present need but positions our state for a stronger future.

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