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Oregon colleges work on hiring ‘benefits navigators’

File photo of Churchill Hall on the campus of Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Ore.
Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives
File photo of Churchill Hall on the campus of Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Ore.

The navigators will work in a statewide consortium to help students access aid.

A bill the Oregon legislature that passed back in June to help college students is expected to be largely implemented on the ground over the next few weeks. The bill aims to streamline the accessibility of resources and aid for college students with the help of a new position on campus.

House Bill 2835 allocated nearly $5 million to Oregon’s colleges and universities to hire benefits navigators, employees who help students access aid including scholarships, as well as food and housing assistance.

The bill itself left out some specifics, such as setting a deadline for schools to hire the positions, but institutions around the state say they are working to get those benefits navigators into place quickly. Some new benefits navigators have already started working to help students, but they are hoping for more guidance and collaboration with other schools moving forward.

Out of Oregon’s seven public universities, one had a benefits navigator before HB 2835 passed: Oregon State University. A few months after the bill passed, Southern Oregon University became the second public university in the state with one.

“I’ve just kind of jumped in, hands-on,” said Jason Piazza, SOU’s benefits navigator.

Prior to stepping into that role for Southern, Piazza was already working in the school’s financial aid office. He holds multiple titles with the school — benefits navigator, community outreach and support manager for the financial aid office.

Piazza says he primarily connects with students using “SOU Cares Notes.” That’s a system where faculty, advisors or even students themselves can fill out a form to let the university know a student is struggling in some way.

“If a student cites financial concern, housing concern, food concern, that comes across my way, and then I try to work it out from there,” Piazza said.

After receiving that note, he reaches out to the individual student and can connect them with university resources, such as potential grants and scholarships to apply for. He can also connect them to outside resources, such as food pantries and state aid programs.

Piazza said he hopes his position can evolve through collaboration as more colleges and universities throughout the state hire benefits navigators.

“What I’m really hoping for is more of a network of, ‘Hey, I found these resources. You may not know about them; here they are,’” he said.

HB 2835 requires all of Oregon’s public higher education institutions to participate in a “statewide consortium” to work together and develop best practices. Part of that work will also be tracking specific metrics related to the benefits navigators’ work. But since not all of the schools have hired for the position yet, the consortium has not yet gotten to that point.

HB 2835 did not spell out which metrics schools should be aiming for to be considered successful in implementing benefits navigators. Elizabeth Guzman Arroyo is working to sort that out.

Guzman Arroyo is the director of STEP, Oregon’s employment and training program for people receiving food assistance benefits, and Pathways to Opportunity, a statewide initiative looking to close opportunity gaps by expanding resources to low-income students. Guzman Arroyo works out of Portland Community College.

“The experiences of basic needs insecurity have always been there for community college students, and just in general, even at four-year universities,” they said. “But the pandemic certainly has augmented those.”

From their perspective at PCC, Oregon’s largest higher education institution, Guzman Arroyo said they’ve seen an increase of students experiencing basic needs insecurity including difficulties with housing, food and access to childcare since the start of the pandemic.

For the benefits navigator bill, Guzman Arroyo is working with all of the public colleges and universities as part of that statewide consortium, to facilitate training and streamline implementation. They said part of that work will be figuring out the specific metrics the consortium will use to measure the benefits navigators’ work.

Guzman Arroyo is working to complete a report by the end of January laying out those metrics. They’re contracting with the nonprofit Seattle Jobs Initiative for data collection assistance to figure out the capacity at the various colleges and universities to gather specific metrics and outcomes related to the bill.

“A couple of things that we’re thinking through are the number of students served, segregated by demographics; the needs that students are reporting; what we’re connecting them to,” Guzman Arroyo said. “We’re also pondering through retention rates of students who access benefit navigators as well as completion rates.”

Guzman Arroyo said those potential metrics aren’t final and could change before their report comes out next month.

So far, the state’s community colleges have made more headway in hiring for the positions compared to the public universities.

According to the Oregon Community College Association, eight of the state’s 17 community colleges have hired a benefits navigator since the passing of HB 2835. Another seven are in the process of hiring for the position, and two did not respond to OCCA about their progress.

Apart from SOU and OSU, which have benefits navigators in place, all of the other universities are in the hiring process. Most expect to have them working by the time students start winter term, next month.

“The goal is for everyone to have their benefit navigator on-board by essentially mid-January,” Guzman Arroyo said.

Once all of the positions are filled, Guzman Arroyo said more work will begin, including statewide training for benefits navigators on how to help students enroll in programs like SNAP, Oregon’s food assistance program, and the Oregon Health Plan, the state’s version of Medicaid.

Guzman Arroyo said a big part of the work will also be destigmatizing accessing public benefits, as well as making sure college campuses are aware of the existence of benefits navigators.

Piazza, Southern Oregon’s benefits navigator, says the visibility of benefits navigators will be crucial at the schools. He said he’s had students referred to him by SOU advisors and student success coordinators.

“It’s being that guide, if you will, to try to help them [find] resources, let them know that there are opportunities,” Piazza said. “It gives you that kind of peace of mind to let you know that there’s people out there looking out for you.”

Both Piazza and Guzman Arroyo said making sure students have their basic needs addressed is key for success in college.

Oregon Rep. Jeff Reardon, D-Happy Valley, was one of the sponsors of HB 2835. He said that sentiment is why benefits navigators are so important.

“More students today are parents, first-generation, veterans, or immigrants who are struggling for food, housing and other basic necessities. Too many of them struggle until they just can’t any more, and they drop out,” Reardon said in a statement to OPB. “They often qualify for a variety of supports, but our systems are so complex that finding the benefits often becomes another obstacle. That’s where the Benefits Navigators — now on all public universities and community colleges — step in to guide students toward the resources they need to survive and thrive.”

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Meerah Powell is a general assignment and breaking news reporter for OPB. She previously worked as a news reporter and podcast producer for Eugene Weekly in her hometown of Eugene, Oregon. Along with writing and audio work, Meerah also has experience with photography and videography. She graduated from the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communication.