Oregon higher education officials urge lawmakers to dig beyond data to bridge barriers facing college students
A legislative committee learned many incoming students aren’t ready for college-level work.
Although the Oregonians who continue on to college after high school may look prepared on paper, many still face challenges when they get there, such as getting up to college-level courses or completing a degree. That was one of the key messages from the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission at a legislative hearing in Salem last week.
Metrics shared by the HECC showed Oregon students weren’t consistently ready for college academics or for the long path to graduation. But higher education officials said more important are the causes behind the problems, and figuring out potential solutions which may address students’ lives outside of the classroom.
Oregon’s House Committee on Higher Education heard testimony from HECC officials Thursday as lawmakers try to pinpoint barriers to college readiness and success, and set priorities for the legislative session.
The college readiness data really only represents a fraction of Oregonians, said Amy Cox, director of the HECC’s Office of Research and Data — the students who chose to go straight on to higher education after graduating high school.
In Oregon’s high school class of 2020-21, 80.6% of students graduated within four years, but only 38% of students enrolled in an Oregon college or university in the fall after graduation. That rate was consistently above 40% prior to the pandemic.
Of the students who did continue, many needed help or were reluctant to dive into challenging courses. At the community colleges, almost one-third of students who came straight from high school in 2021 took developmental math — classes that are below the college level. Fewer than half of Oregon community college students just out of high school attempted college-level math or writing classes in their first year.
“Most students who do enroll in college-level coursework successfully complete the course; the challenge is that many do not enroll at all, at least not in their first year,” Cox said.
What isn’t represented in that data, she said, is the disparities that exist for underrepresented students.
“Students from communities of color and from low income and rural backgrounds are less likely to enroll in college level coursework right out of high school,” Cox said.
High school students who continue on to one of Oregon’s public universities typically have relatively high grade point averages and other indicators of academic readiness, because of university academic requirements. But they may still face challenges when they get there — with many students giving up on completing degrees shortly after starting.
“In general, incoming freshmen from Oregon at the universities come well academically prepared,” she said. “Nonetheless, many students do not return after their first year.”
As of the 2020-21 academic year, 83% of Oregon university students who started as first-time, full-time students continued on for their second year of school. That number is much lower for community college students fresh out of high school, at 53%.
Although both groups of students have seen degree completion rates rise over the past decade, the gap between the graduation rates for university students and the rate for community college students persists.
Among Oregonians who started at public universities in 2015, barely two-thirds — 67.7% — graduated within six years. The success rate for community college students is even worse, with just 41% of students entering two-year schools straight out of high school either transferring to a university or earning a shorter-term college credential within four years.
Vice chair of the House Committee on Higher Education, Rep. Ricki Ruiz, D-Gresham, asked HECC officials Thursday if it would help to have more data from Oregon colleges and universities.
HECC Executive Director Ben Cannon said more data isn’t necessarily what’s most important. He wants lawmakers focused on the context behind who is going to college, who’s succeeding and who’s not.
“If you go to a community college today and you survey the students or you survey faculty or survey institution administrators, ‘Why are students not succeeding at greater rates?’ You’re probably not likely to hear it’s because of an absence of information or data about their students,” Cannon said. “It is because the students are experiencing what a lot of Oregonians are experiencing around housing instability, around food insecurity, around some higher ed issues — academic pathways that are challenging to navigate, issues of preparation for higher education.”
“We know a lot already and we would love to know and report even more, but I would encourage this committee to consider that in the context of a lot of other needs and barriers that face students in Oregon. Data is a part of the answer, but it is certainly not a silver bullet.”
Rep. Nathan Sosa, D-Hillsboro, said the Legislature has heard a lot about the variety of issues students are facing, and the committee is trying to figure out which of those needs are the most important to tackle with finite resources.
Cox with the HECC said those student needs vary across institutions.
“During the pandemic, there are institutions that have reached out to students who are not returning in unprecedented ways, not only to understand barriers, but also to try and remove those barriers and invite them back,” Cox said. “Some of the things that they heard, especially during the pandemic, were largely around affordability and challenges facing students since the pandemic and during the pandemic more broadly.”
Cox also pointed out that experiences have differed greatly for students of color, rural students and other underrepresented groups.
Cannon said when thinking about college preparedness, not all the responsibility should be on the students’ shoulders.
“Increasingly, within higher education and certainly for our commission we’re trying to ask our institutions, ask our policy leaders, ask ourselves, ‘Are we doing everything we can to ensure that we’re ready for students?’,” he said. “The onus increasingly, we believe, should be on our systems, on our policies, on our investments and on our institutions to ensure that we are serving them in all of their diversity and with all of their strengths and with all of their challenges.”
Some of these themes are likely to come before lawmakers later in the legislative session, when the higher education committee takes up recommendations from the Joint Task Force on Student Success for Underrepresented Students in Higher Education. Problems such as college affordability and the need for wrap-around services came up often in the task force’s work.
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