Unlocking doors to Oregon colleges
Author: The Oregonian Editorial Board
Posted: February 5, 2013

Read the original article in The Oregonian here.

Jose Esparza, a "success coach" for students at Portland Community College, describes his goal in simple terms.

"We believe in students," he says, "until they are ready to believe in themselves."

Esparza helps disadvantaged students navigate a college campus well enough to earn a degree, get job certification or transfer to a university. This work is part of PCC's mission to help more students thrive in college, rather than simply enroll and fend for themselves.

Efforts like these deserve attention, as Oregon tries to push all of its community colleges and universities to boost their students' graduation rates and job prospects. Though colleges can't easily provide success coaches to all students, they can certainly boost their overall graduation rates by working to lower the barriers that disadvantaged students so starkly face.

PCC offers several programs aimed at assisting first-generation, lower-income students, including a Future Connect scholarship program and numerous partnerships with high schools in the Portland metro area. Despite ongoing funding challenges, PCC's work has received attention from the state for helping students who might otherwise lack the foundation to succeed.

The extra help varies, but it often includes individual counseling, financial aid, career planning and tutoring. Esparza, for example, teaches a college-survival class, where students learn about time management and the importance of persistence. He says he also helps students navigate the financial aid office and deal with any red flags before classes start: Routine problems with class registration or payment can permanently derail a first-time college student.

Meanwhile, PCC says it's trying to make registration, financial aid and transferring credits more customer-friendly for all students. It's working especially closely with Portland State University, where many PCC students transfer in search of a bachelor's degree. It's more efficient to simplify the process for everyone, college leaders are finding, rather than maintain systems that require a lot of hand-holding.

Oregon remains in the middle of a massive restructuring of its education system from preschool to college. The intent is to redefine success around what comes next, so that preschoolers are ready for kindergarten, high schoolers are ready for college or career training, and college graduates are equipped to land a decent job.

"We just need to step up our game, all of us, pre-K to 20," says retiring college president Preston Pulliams.

This process has exposed some real weaknesses in Oregon's education system, including below-average funding and unsustainable spending. And it has revealed how many teenagers leave high school -- both as graduates and dropouts -- without the academic preparation, career guidance or personal grounding to be successful adults. Oregon needs significant reinvestment and reform at the K-12 level to boost the state's 68 percent graduation rate and to make sure more high school students know how to pass a college class, nail a job interview and work toward a goal.

Meanwhile, Oregon needs more people like Jose Esparza to fill in the gaps.

And colleges need to care as much about the success of their graduates as they do about the size of their next incoming class.