Mohammad Noyeem attends an ESL Reading & Writing class at a community college on Jan. 7, 2019.

Students attending an ESL Reading & Writing class at a community college on Jan. 7, 2019.

Arya Surowidjojo / OPB

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Students at community colleges are getting some relief for education costs incurred during the pandemic, thanks to money from federal relief packages. At Clatsop Community College, students’ financial accounts can include tuition, books and fees. The overall amounts range from a handful of dollars to $7,000, with an average of about $600. Jerad Sorber is the Vice President of Student Success, and he joins us to tell us more about the program and the severe financial distress some students face as the pandemic continues.


This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller:  Some community college students in Oregon are getting one time debt relief. The money came from federal pandemic relief packages. Colleges and universities around the country can use it to help students pay down debt built up from tuition, fees and books. Clatsop Community College is one of the schools that is doing this. Jerad Sorber is the Vice President for Student Success there and he joins us to talk about it.  Can you give us a sense for how many students need this help and how many will you be able to help?

Jerad Sorber:  Our initial count when we started doing this project was just a little over 500 students, 506 to be precise. We’re really excited to be able to provide this sort of relief for a pretty significant population at a small college like ours.

Miller:  How much debt do these students have on average?

Sorber:  The average debt amount that we found was just over $630. So if you think about the cost of renting an apartment in Astoria, it’s probably about half a month’s rent for a lot of our students.

Miller:  Average, meaning some may have significantly more than that?

Sorber:  Yes, the student who owed the most [debt], just over $7,000, was a student in one of our more expensive technical programs. It’s a great program, high wages, but the initial cost is pretty significant.  We try to help out, but the student um, was trying to pay out of pocket and that wasn’t working out for that.

Miller:  How much support will these 500 plus students be getting?

Sorber:  The goal is to be able to wipe out whatever their current balance is with the colleges. And so that will include tuition, fees, if they charged books, or had a late library return, all of those things are going to be wiped out. So for that student who owes $7,000, the amount will actually be $7,000. We actually have a student who owed $1. We think that student might just pay the $1, but we’ll be ready to help them out too.

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Miller:  I was curious when I first saw headlines about this because some number of years ago we talked a fair amount about the Oregon Promise, which was supposed to mean tuition-free community college for many students in Oregon. So, are the people who need this really getting this relief through federal funds? Are they not eligible for the Oregon Promise?

Sorber:  Some of these students may have received Oregon Promise at some point. However, one of the challenges for Oregon Promises is that it’s really aimed at students going directly from high school to college. So for those students, Oregon Promise works wonderfully. It helps fill the gap between the Oregon College Grant and Pell and the tuition.  But, for example, a student who’s coming back for retraining, maybe having skipped a year of college, that student has been out in the workforce, lost the position or is trying to upgrade, that program really isn’t designed to help that particular student. And that’s a significant portion of our population in community colleges.

Miller:  When you say a significant portion, give us a ballpark sense.  I asked because, you know, however many years ago, five years ago or so when it started, the headlines then were that community college is going to be free for Oregon students. As you’re saying, that’s true if you’re going straight from high school. But, what percentage of your students are actually doing that?

Sorber:  If you look at just headcount, we’re probably talking 60-70% of our students are returning adult students. So for them, Oregon Promise was not something that worked great for them. Oregon Promises is a fantastic program, especially for our students who are going to complete a transfer degree. It saves them a ton of money getting to their bachelor’s degree if they started at the community college and then move on to U of O, Oregon State, my alma mater, Southern Oregon University. But for those students who are coming back [to community college] from the workforce, it really doesn’t reach that population.

Miller:  What kinds of stories have you heard over the last year and a half about how the pandemic has affected your students?

Sorber:  I’ve heard everything from, I lost my job to I haven’t been able to have time to study because my job requires me to work extra hours because they designated me an essential worker. I’ve heard folks talking about losing family and relatives or needing to stay home and take care of family and relatives. We’ve had students who contracted COVID and gotten quite ill where we needed to do some accommodations and workarounds. We’ve had students also struggling with online classes. I mean, there’s just a gamut.

There’s been a lot of stress that a lot of our students have experienced, stress on themselves, their academics, their relationships.  All of those sorts of things, for some folks, may become just an annoyance.  But those same things can become the sorts of stressors that can become very real for a lot of our students who are really just trying to simply juggle a lot in a normal year. And then when you put COVID on top of it, it’s just the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Miller:  Do you know yet if this debt relief has enabled more students to continue their education? It seems like one of the real hopes behind this, in addition to easing the financial burden as an educational entity, is that they’ll get their degrees?

Sorber:  Absolutely. That’s our number one goal with this. We know that lacking that balance can just be one more block to getting one’s education completed. That’s why we did this program. We’re still a little bit too early to see.  We opened this up just a few weeks ago. So the truth is going to be in the pudding for Fall Quarter, when we see how many of those students show up in our classrooms in another week and a half [as of September 14, the original airing of this segment].

Either virtually or in person, we can really get a sense of how successful this has been. We are seeing quite a few students take advantage of this and we had a couple of students miss the paperwork deadlines so we’re extending that for them so that this barrier is out of their way.

Miller:  What else have you been doing to help students succeed right now? You are, after all, the Vice President for Student Success?

Sorber:  [We are] looking at our own campus support and services like mental health and boosting things like online tutoring and many other things that other colleges have been doing. One of the big focuses we’ve had at Clatsop is building up that network of organizations we work with to provide more holistic support for our students. Our students are challenged with things like housing, food, transportation, all of those sorts of things.  Really, the big economic realignment that we’re experiencing is as a result of COVID. So I’d say one of the things that I think I feel most proud about in the work that we’re doing right now is building that network.

Building it includes [working with] organizations as big as the Department of Human Services and Employment Security.  Even though they’ve gotten a lot of flak, there are some really great people there that have really been doing a good job of helping to coordinate programs and organizations like WorkSource all the way down to local organizations, like Clatsop Community Action. They do everything from operating the local food pantry and helping us establish a food pantry on campus to helping folks with housing assistance, local transportation and elder care.  So becoming part of that network of organizations works on social mobility for students and for our community.  That has really been the biggest thing I think, if we’re going to look for a silver lining in all of this, THAT has been one of the most positive outcomes for us.

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