The passage of a bill Wednesday will require each of Oregon’s public universities and community colleges to hire a “benefits navigator” to help students access aid programs, such as food and housing assistance.

House Bill 2835 allocates nearly $5 million to the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission, which will distribute that money to the institutions for the new positions.

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Sponsor of the bill and long-time instructor at Mt. Hood Community College, Sen. Chris Gorsek, D-Troutdale, spoke about the bill on the Senate floor Wednesday.

“In my many years at Mt. Hood Community College, starting back in the 1990s, I have seen the slow but steady erosion of advisors for our students in community college,” Gorsek said. “I believe that this is an important way to help fill some of that gap in knowledge that we’ve lost.”

The schools will receive the money for the positions in this upcoming two-year budget cycle, beginning July 1. The bill does not specify a deadline by which the positions have to be filled.

A coalition of Oregon anti-hunger advocates, student-led groups and higher education leaders had been pushing for the bill, and they celebrated its passage Wednesday.

“The Oregon community colleges, as part of this coalition, applaud the passage of this landmark bill that both acknowledges basic needs insecurity as a major barrier to college completion, particularly for racially minoritized students, and provides a foundation for addressing this need at scale,” Portland Community College President Mark Mitsui said in a news release from the Oregon Student Association. “Most importantly, the benefits navigators will have a profound, positive impact on the lives of countless Oregonians who seek a better life through education at their local community colleges.”

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Chemeketa Community College President Jessica Howard also stressed that the bill will assist students from underrepresented communities, and it will help increase access to higher education in the state’s pandemic recovery efforts.

“HB 2835 provides community colleges like Chemeketa with a key strategy to create an equitable recovery from the recent recession, particularly for Oregonians from rural, racially diverse, and economically challenged communities,” Howard said in a statement.

Eastern Oregon University was one of the founding higher education partners in Eastern Promise. Its professors work with public school teachers to ensure high schoolers are doing college-level work in college credit courses.

Eastern Oregon University.

Rob Manning / OPB

Eastern Oregon University President Tom Insko noted students’ advocacy for the bill. More than 50 people testified on behalf of the bill earlier this year, many of them current college students.

“The many students across Oregon who advocated tirelessly for HB 2835 are to be commended for ensuring the benefits navigators program can be put into action,” Insko said in that release. “Students attending Oregon’s colleges and universities today have more needs than in previous generations and it is important they maximize all resources available to ensure they have access and opportunity to graduate and succeed in life.”

Along with creating the positions, the bill also requires the colleges and universities to participate in a “statewide consortium” to facilitate communication between the benefits navigators and develop best practices.

Oregon State University already has a “basic needs navigator” in its Human Services Resource Center, OSU spokesperson Steve Clark said.

“Oregon State University applauds state legislators for recognizing the significant and growing needs that college students face today,” Clark said.

Clark said the university’s basic needs navigator has helped students in need access more than $800,000 in federal and state resources, such as SNAP benefits — informally known as food stamps.

“We look forward to working with legislators, state agencies, and Oregon’s other universities and community colleges to advance the goals of HB 2835 and serve growing student needs even better,” he said.

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