ORLANDO, Fla. — Community colleges rarely, if ever, attend conferences about housing and food insecurity. It’s about time they do in order to foster partnerships to help the increasing number of students on campus who face such challenges.
Mark Mitsui, president of Oregon’s Portland Community College (PCC), pitched that idea during a session on leveraging resources to transform communities at the American Association of Community Colleges annual convention.
Community colleges are more aware about the basic needs of their students, which must be addressed before students can succeed in college, said Zarina Blakenbaker, president of Tarrant County College’s Northwest Campus (TCC-Northwest) in Texas. And more colleges becoming conveners and connectors in bringing together community organizations, agencies and resources to help not only their students, but also to serve basic needs in their communities, she said.
As with a growing number of community colleges, PCC’s work aims to not only help students attain skills for jobs, but for jobs with family-sustaining wages. In Oregon, there are 442,000 adults age 25 and older who are unemployed or earn less than $15 an hour, Mitsui said. Even in the tight economy there are jobs available, especially among middle-skill jobs, which require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree.
But it’s a challenge to prepare those students, who also often balance work and family life. It requires more helping hands.
“We need a wider bridge,” said Mitsui, who sees a postsecondary credential as an “anti-poverty measure.” He noted a PCC student who a few years ago was using federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Today, she earns a six-figure income as a welder on natural gas pipeline.
Mitsui highlighted various efforts in which PCC is involved at the local, state and national level. For example, the college participates in Oregon’s Pathways to Opportunity project, which integrates federal benefit programs to increase student success. Another state effort is the Oregon Community College STEP Consortia, which leverages a SNAP program that partially reimburses colleges for efforts to help low-income students succeed. The participating colleges use the funds for a variety of services, such as housing and transportation, and even to cover short-term credit programs.
PCC also has helped to plan state summits that bring together state agencies, community colleges and other stakeholders to explore ways to improve services to help low-income students stay in school.
Locally, PCC has worked with the transportation authority to lower fare for low-income students, from $180 a quarter to $28 a quarter. Also, the local housing authority has given priority of its services to homeless students.
“If you don’t know where you’re going to sleep, how are you going to school?” Mitsui asked.
In addition, PCC’s foundation has started its Campaign for Opportunity, which is raising money to provide students with small grants to cover emergencies in order to prevent them from dropping out of college.
Mitsui also noted an Arkansas TANF program that has resulted in higher college completion rates for students in the program than low-income students not using the benefits.
“This is why we need to be in the anti-poverty space,” he said.
Serving the broader community
TCC-Northwest works with local organizations not only to serve it students but the community, said Lisa Benedetti, dean of humanities at TCC-Northwest. In a county where one-quarter of youths face food insecurity, the college partnered with Community Link, an area food bank, to provide food as well as other services to low-income residents. The two organizations team up for an annual back-to-school effort that provide free backpacks and supplies to local K-12 students.
TCC-Northwest also is part of a community coalition that includes the local YMCA, Community Link and others that host events for the community. For many residents, they visit the campus for the first time for the activities, which include health services, such as vision and dental screening. Benedetti added that in one case the vision screening was able to save a girl’s vision.
Hunger is always a challenge, so the partners hold a community food market that includes fresh produce. The college recently held the market at an air hanger previously used by its aviation program. The market has garnered so much attention — serving at least 300 families a month, half of which are families using the services for the first time — that it has brought in new partners.
“The moment you start networking, there are more opportunities,” Benedetti said.