Oregon’s community colleges generate billions for the economy, report says

By Meerah Powell (OPB)
Aug. 21, 2023 1 p.m.

Oregon’s 17 community colleges generated more than $9 billion in annual economic impact for the state in the 2021-2022 fiscal year, according to a new report from the Oregon Community College Association.

The analysis, conducted by labor market analytics firm Lightcast and paid for by the colleges, looked at a variety of ways the colleges infuse money into the state’s economy, not only through training students to enter the state’s workforce and employing staff and faculty, but also more broadly through avenues like construction and operations costs which support jobs outside of higher education.


The analysis found that one out of every 22 jobs in the state is supported by the activities of the community colleges and their students.

“A core mission of Oregon community colleges is to empower individuals with the skills imperative for constructing the foundation of our state’s economy,” Karen Smith, interim executive director of the colleges association, said in a statement. “The findings of this analysis undeniably demonstrate that Oregon’s community colleges are a compelling investment for the triad of major stakeholders — students, taxpayers and society at large.”

The colleges, like much of Oregon’s higher education institutions, have been suffering from falling enrollment — not only during the pandemic, but over the course of the past decade. That’s caused budget difficulties for some of the schools due to declining tuition dollars.

Across all 17 community colleges, total student headcount fell more than 40% from 2012 to last fall.

A key talking point out of the study, based on messages from college leaders, relates to recruiting prospective students based on community colleges having a strong “return on investment” for the money spent on courses. Central Oregon Community College officials say the study shows an $8,000 per year earnings premium when comparing people in the region who earned a degree from Central and those with lower levels of education. Central president Laurie Chesley calls that “a powerful testament” to the college’s value.

A sign reads "Portland Community College."

FILE: A Portland Community College sign is pictured in Portland, Ore., May 16, 2016.

Bryan M. Vance / OPB

These studies are a way for the colleges to demonstrate their direct impact on their stakeholders, said Casey White-Zollman, Oregon Community College Association’s communications director. White-Zollman said the group plans to use the data when advocating for policy and funding from the state Legislature over the next few years.

Regardless of their shrinking sizes, the data showed that the colleges made big impacts economically, both regionally and for the state as a whole.


In total, the analysis found the colleges added $9.6 billion in income to the state economy. That translates to the colleges supporting nearly 118,000 jobs across the state.

The largest economic impact did not come from direct spending from the colleges themselves, nor from employees or students, but from alumni, according to the study.

“Today, hundreds of thousands of former students are employed in Oregon,” the executive summary of the analysis reads. “As a result of their education from Oregon’s community colleges, the students receive higher earnings and increase the productivity of the businesses that employ them.”

Alumni from the colleges generated $8.6 billion in added income for the Oregon economy in 2021-22, according to the analysis.

Another direct financial impact of the colleges, based on data from the 2021-22 school year, comes from its labor force of more than 10,000 full- and part-time faculty and staff. According to the analysis, those employees contributed more than $750 million to the state economy through rent and mortgage payments and other household spending.

Investments into construction projects every year by the colleges also have an impact on the state economy, according to the data. The colleges’ spending on construction in 2021-22 generated nearly $30 million.

The analysis also looked at the positive economic impacts from “relocated and retained students” — students who either moved to Oregon for a community college or explicitly stayed in Oregon because of the colleges. Those students’ spending on necessities like groceries, housing and transportation generated roughly $177 million for the state economy.

The analysis laid out positive economic impacts for students, who on average made roughly $9,000 more with an associate degree than a high school diploma during the analysis year. The data showed that Oregon taxpayers saw benefits through the “improved lifestyles” of the colleges’ graduates, relating to less reliance on government services.

As part of Lightcast’s analysis, the colleges also received individualized data.

Being Oregon’s largest college, Portland Community College had the largest economic impact on the state out of the schools — $2.3 billion. That’s equivalent to about 1.4% of the region’s total gross product, the value of goods and services produced in a specific region.

The study also revealed the economic impact of Oregon’s smaller colleges. According to OCCA, Clatsop Community College had more than $100 million in total economic impact to Clatsop County’s economy in 2021-22. That equals about 5% of the county’s total gross regional product, the highest figure out of all the colleges.

The total contract with Lightcast for the report was $187,000, split evenly between the 17 colleges for $11,000 each, according to OCCA. That money came out of state funds rather than tuition dollars or local tax dollars.

This isn’t the first time the colleges have commissioned such a study. According to OCCA, Lightcast, formerly EMSI, also conducted studies on the colleges’ financial impact in 2020, 2016 and 2010. Though, it’s not possible to directly compare the previous studies due to changes in research methodologies, according to Lightcast.