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Students need better bridge between high school, college

Jeremy Brown, the relatively new president of Portland Community College, arrives at a time when his institution is confronted with more demands and higher expectations than ever before.

Brown’s collaborative style will serve PCC well as it tries to do its part to meet a statewide goal of having 80 percent of high school graduates receive either a two-year or four-year college level education. However, even a community college as large as PCC — which enrolls more students than any other college or university in Oregon — cannot accomplish such ambitious goals without additional transformative changes in the education system.

Students must be able to afford college, and they must be fully prepared to take college classes once they enroll. Without better access or college readiness, Oregon’s students will fall far short of the so-called 40-40-20 goal to have 100 percent of students graduate from high school by 2025, with 40 percent then receiving a two-year degree or certificate and 40 percent getting a university degree.

Brown is too new to Oregon to recall the state’s past attempts to set audacious goals or benchmarks, only to come up short in the end. Brown took over in July from the former PCC president, Preston Pulliams, and was more formally installed during an investiture ceremony Oct. 30.

Recently, Brown discussed his plans with Pamplin Media Group’s editorial board, and he demonstrated a solid understanding of PCC’s valued place in this community. PCC’s footprint continues to expand as it completes projects funded by a 2008 bond measure. The college’s Southeast Portland Center on 82nd Avenue is on the verge of becoming a full-fledged campus. The college’s other seven campuses and centers also have seen improvements from the bond funding.

As the bond program moves toward a conclusion, Brown is looking to the next set of objectives. He wants to engage the community in developing a five-year strategic plan that begins to answer the question of what a community college should look like in the 21st century. Success, he says, eventually will be measured by how well students perform in relation to the 40-40-20 goal; how satisfied the community is with PCC’s service; and how many employers recognize that PCC is fulfilling their workplace needs.

Those are all worthy benchmarks to pursue. Community colleges, however, will need help from the Oregon Legislature and the K-12 system if they are to provide the advanced education necessary for Oregon to succeed economically in a competitive world.

As Brown says, education should be seamless for students moving from high school to college, which means they need to enter college with the required skills in areas such as writing and math. As Oregon’s K-12 schools implement the Common Core standards — which focus specifically on language and math — they should produce students who are better prepared, and community college and K-12 partnerships can help bridge the gap.

Another challenge will be affordability, and this is a place where Oregon leaders are beginning to dream big. Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler has proposed what many see as the risky idea of selling $500 million in general obligation bonds to create a permanent endowment for college scholarships, while state Rep. Michael Dembrow of Portland has co-sponsored a “Pay It Forward” college funding plan that would allow students to repay their tuition through payroll deductions.

Locally, the cities of Beaverton and Hillsboro have made bold moves. Each municipality has donated $100,000 to fund PCC scholarships for students from their communities who are the first in their families to attend college.

All these ideas have potential drawbacks, but they represent the type of thinking required if Oregon is to do more than simply talk about having most of its students attend and complete college-level programs.

Community colleges and universities can recruit promising leaders such as Brown, and they can put in place the programs needed for a technology-driven economy. Those efforts, however, cannot deliver maximum results unless students have both the educational background and the financial help necessary to succeed.




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