A task force within the Oregon State Legislature is finalizing recommendations focused on college affordability, campus wraparound services and institutional accountability as it looks to improve higher education experiences and outcomes for underrepresented students. That group of lawmakers has spent the last year discussing possible changes to higher ed in the state, ahead of a reporting deadline for the next legislative session.
The Joint Task Force on Student Success for Underrepresented Students in Higher Education met Thursday morning to talk over its next steps.
“It is going to be a lot of hard work going into the 2023 session, and that means that if ever there was a time that all of us who value, support and believe in our higher ed system — that we all have to come together to ensure that we create a system that really embodies our students,” said task force Chair, Oregon Rep. Teresa Alonso Leon.
The task force formed out of Oregon House Bill 2590 last year, which directed the group to develop ideas for the legislature to address student success in regard to access, retention, graduation and subsequent entry into the workforce. The group defined “underrepresented” students broadly to include more than race. For instance, the task force considered students who are from rural parts of the state, are low-income, or identify as LGBTQ+.
Ben Cannon, executive director of Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission, doubled down on the importance of the task force’s work at its meeting Thursday.
“We’ve seen a proliferation of programs and activities designed to better support underrepresented students. But, in spite of those efforts, going back over 50 years nationally we’ve made too little progress, and in Oregon we’ve made too little progress,” Cannon said.
Cannon said huge gaps still exist for underrepresented students.
“Black, Native American and Latino students are 10 to 20% less likely to enroll in college than other students in Oregon, and they’re 25 to 35% less likely to complete a four-year degree if they do,” Cannon said.
“Rural and low-income students experience similar gaps, and you’ve heard as well from students with disabilities, students who are parents, LGBTQ students and other underrepresented students to suggest they face similar barriers.”
The task force toured the state to learn more about student needs. They held both in-person and virtual meetings at 13 college and university campuses as well as at two correctional facilities which offer educational opportunities.
The task force, across three separate work groups, came up with dozens of proposals. They include increased funding to financial aid programs such as the Oregon Opportunity Grant and Oregon Tribal Student Grant, expansion of child care services on campuses and implementation of cultural competency training for academic advisors and campus mental health professionals.
At its last official meeting next month, the task force will approve a final report for the legislature as well as introduce legislative concepts that will eventually turn into bills for the 2023 legislative session.
“We need to be thinking about what goes into those bills,” task force member and Oregon State Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, said. “We have a number of proposals before us, and we need to think about how we can combine them, shape them, et cetera, for deciding how to move forward with them.”
Cannon, with the HECC, said he feels optimistic about the task force’s work and its potential effect on the future of Oregon higher education.
“This is the first time in my experience in at least the last decade that a set of legislators has... rolled up their sleeves and spent dozens of hours and put in thousands of miles to engage with these topics, to listen to students and to develop a set of recommendations that is ambitious, is systematic and is attainable as you review and discuss these recommendations,” Cannon said.
The task force has a deadline of Dec. 15 to submit its report to the legislature.