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Oregon Secretary of State: Struggling community colleges need more attention

PCC's Rock Creek Campus in Washington County will see rebuilt learning spaces for some career and technical programs thanks to a historic $450 bond passed by the voters in November.
Courtesy of Portland Community College
PCC's Rock Creek Campus in Washington County will see rebuilt learning spaces for some career and technical programs thanks to a historic $450 bond passed by the voters in November.

An audit of Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission calls for more focus on community college support.

An audit released Monday from the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office calls for more attention and support for the state’s 17 community colleges.

The audit of Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission, or HECC, found that although state leaders and the colleges have made key improvements, there’s still more work to do.

The Higher Education Coordinating Commission began overseeing the state’s community colleges in 2015. The state agency monitors how both community colleges and public universities are performing, prepares goals and strategic plans and works with institutions and state leaders to address problems.

Since 2015, the Secretary of State’s Office found student performance has improved and financial aid has increased for community college students. But state auditors also found remaining problems including continuing equity gaps for students of color, a lack of transparency and inadequate monitoring of data that could be used to improve college systems.

Oregon Secretary Shemia Fagan said the community colleges’ success is not only important to the state and its workforce, but also to her personally.

“Education helped me break the cycle of poverty in my family,” Fagan said in a statement. “Our community colleges are important gateways for students from lower-income families, for older and rural students, for working parents, for workers needing retraining. They are also crucial for Oregon’s economy. State leaders need to focus on them now more than ever.”

The audit found that although student completion rates at Oregon community colleges have improved since 2015, they are still low nationally. Last year, Oregon ranked 40th in college completion rates, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

For students of color in Oregon, completion and transfer rates have also increased over the years, but “differences in outcomes between these groups and white students continue, raising equity concerns for underserved students who disproportionately rely on community colleges,” according to the audit.

Many of Oregon’s community colleges were hit hard by the pandemic — with falling enrollment and layoffs. But, the college enrollment has been shrinking even before then. Since 2012, the 17 community colleges have lost a combined roughly 42% in student enrollment, according to data from the HECC.

Secretary of State staff acknowledged Monday that the state’s community colleges have made vast improvements over the past few years, but there are still major work to do.

“Since our 2015 audit, there’s been some good, if not great progress made in our system, so we don’t want the significant findings — which there are — to diminish that,” Kip Memmott, director of the Secretary of State’s Audits Division, said during a press conference Monday. “There’s been a lot of work put in and a lot of progress made, so we think and we’re hopeful and aspirational that we can build on that momentum.”

The audit issued a variety of recommendations to the HECC including improving transparency in the data that could be used to monitor student success at the colleges, evaluating the effectiveness of student support and academic services and issuing regular reports to the public and the legislature on community college sustainability.

The Secretary of State’s Office also called on the governor’s office and state legislature to help the HECC make these and other improvements by providing clear support, direction and authority, as well as necessary staff and funding.

In a letter to the Secretary of State’s Audits Division, HECC Executive Director Ben Cannon said the agency generally agrees with the recommendations, and is committed to addressing them. Cannon said the HECC may lack the authority, staff and resources to take on some of the tasks.

Because of the higher ed commission’s role as a coordinating agency, it doesn’t have the authority to compel community colleges to act in certain ways. That’s unlike other state agencies, such as Oregon’s Department of Education which does have the authority to set specific rules and policies for public K-12 schools.

“[N]o matter how much the HECC supports the Secretary of State’s recommendations to improve community college outcomes and sustainability, implementing the recommendations is at present a shared responsibility of the HECC, local community college boards, community college staff, accrediting institutions, and the Oregon Student Success Center,” Cannon wrote.

As for data reporting, Cannon wrote that the HECC already reports a variety of data online annually about the state’s higher education landscape. He said the agency will explore potentially reporting additional data next year, such as early indicators of student success.

Copyright 2022 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.