It’s no secret that many working families in Oregon are falling behind. We know that for many Oregonians, the key to getting ahead financially is a college degree or skills acquired through vocational and technical training; yet for many, this goal is simply out of reach.

That’s why SEIU Local 503 urges a “yes” vote on Ballot Measure 86.

Measure 86 has three goals: One, make higher education and job training more affordable; two, reduce student debt; and three, encourage the expansion of vocational and technical job training in Oregon.

When it comes to funding higher education, Oregon ranks 47th in the nation. Colleges have responded to dwindling state support by shifting the burden to students and their families. The high cost of tuition means many Oregonians simply cannot afford college.

To make matters worse, access to student aid is scarce. The Oregon Opportunity Grant program is an effective tool for those students who secure a grant, but onl y one out of every five eligible applicants for Oregon Opportunity Grants receives anything at all.

Given that wages in Oregon lag behind the national average, we should be troubled by the financial barriers that stand in the way of accessing advanced education and vocational training, especially for low- and moderate-income Oregonians.

Women and people of color are disproportionately affected by this lack of opportunity.

Those who complete their degree often graduate with huge debt burdens. Student debt accumulated by Oregon University System students increased 48 percent from 2004 to 2009. High debt loads prevent graduates from purchasing homes and fully participating in our state’s economy. Many graduates are unable to repay their loans at all. Default rates at some community colleges exceed 30 percent.

That’s where Measure 86 comes in. This measure would create a permanent, growing endowment for student aid and vocational training for low- and moderate-income Oregonians. The fund would only be used for that purpose — it is locked and cannot be raided by the state Legislature. Further, because the fund is separate from the state’s general fund, increased student aid wouldn’t come at the expense of other vital public services like support for seniors, kids and families in need.

Measure 86 recognizes that while college is not for everyone, all Oregonians should have access to job skills training that can lead to a high-wage job. Vocational and technical training offers a path to thrive in a skills-based economy. Unfortunately, Oregon virtually eliminated vocational and technical training from its high schools a number of years ago.

Many community colleges have partnered with private-sector companies to create new vocational and technical training opportunities. This is a win for community colleges that enroll more students, for students who gain new skills, and for private-sector companies that have a new pool of talented workers. These are exactly the type of programs Measure 86 aims to support.

If we approve Measure 86, Oregon students would have increased access to financial help to pay for education, allowing them to earn a degree without accruing excessive debt, and Oregon would have a work-force development tool that gives us a competitive advantage over other states.

If we do nothing the consequences would be far-reaching: Student debt will continue to grow, families of low and moderate incomes will be further left behind, and per capita income in Oregon will decline even more. Oregon’s economy will suffer as businesses remain unable to find skilled employees.

If you work hard, you deserve a fair shot to get ahead, not just get by; yet for many families, the deck is stacked against them. Let’s help unstack the deck for all Oregonians by passing Measure 86 this November.

Heather Conroy is executive director of SEIU Local 503, a union of 55,000 public workers, care providers and nonprofit employees in Oregon.

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