Oregon’s Pathways to Opportunity Coalition is celebrating the passage of Oregon HB 2835. Known as the Benefits Navigator Bill, HB 2835 creates funding at every community college and public university for a Benefits Navigator position to help students access SNAP food benefits, STEP (SNAP E&T program), housing assistance, and other basic needs resources. Through SkillSPAN and the Supportive Services Academy, National Skills Coalition supported this broad-based coalition to develop a policy agenda that would advance racial equity, postsecondary credential completion, and economic mobility across the state. Coalition leaders from Oregon’s community colleges, Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, Oregon Food Bank, and the Oregon Student Association also centered student and worker voices in the policy development and design. They ensured this would continue through implementation by including requirements in the bill for students to be involved in the program design.
“HB 2835 is the culmination of the strategic work of a broad coalition. The Oregon community colleges, as part of this coalition, applaud the passage of this landmark bill that both acknowledges basic needs insecurity as a major barrier to college completion, particularly for racially minoritized students, and provides a foundation for addressing this need at scale. Most importantly, the benefits navigators will have a profound, positive impact on the lives of countless Oregonians who seek a better life through education at their local community colleges,” said Portland Community College President Mark Mitsui.
Melissa Johnson, Managing State Strategies Director at National Skills Coalition, observed that, “The passage of HB 2835 is a testament to the power of multi-stakeholder, coalition-based advocacy that expands equitable access to supports for students so that they can fully participate in an inclusive recovery. Food assistance, housing and other basic needs are essential to student success in training for the careers of today and tomorrow.”
Students have been integral in advocating for the bill: testifying, meeting with legislators, and sharing their insights on the All In: Student Pathways Forward Podcast. Dray Aguirre, a Central Oregon Community College student shared, “I am grateful to have provided testimony in support of HB 2835. I know from my own experience that providing students with access to a full-time benefits navigator that would help direct students to services and programs, will greatly improve our success in school, and provide us with peace of mind so that we can achieve our goals of graduating.”
This need for assistance and services is great. Prior to the pandemic, the HOPE Center’s #RealCollege Survey found that 63% of Oregon’s community college students experienced basic needs insecurity. Data released by Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon found even higher rates. Danita Harris, Oregon Food Bank Metro Campaigns Coordinator, explained, “The grim reality is that before the pandemic, 40% of college students in Oregon faced hunger. When we examine those findings, it is clear that college communities occupying multiple intersections of oppression experience food insecurity at even greater rates. Having a navigator on staff to help students facing acute and chronic food insecurity will help students navigate the landscape of resources made available allowing them to focus on their education.”
Chris Baker, Legislative Strategist at Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, emphasized this reality, “I know from my own experience as a middle-aged, single-parent college student what today’s students face – skyrocketing tuition, rising costs of living, and limited financial aid have made college completion that much harder than it was for previous generations.”
As communities rebuild after the COVID-19 pandemic, access to skills training and completing college credentials is more important than ever for an inclusive recovery. Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that 99% of jobs created in the last recovery went to workers with some college education. Yet, unmet financial need and basic needs insecurity prevent too many individuals from accessing the skills training needed. This bill helps to close this gap. Chemeketa Community College President Jessica Howard explained, “HB 2835 provides community colleges like Chemeketa with a key strategy to create an equitable recovery from the recent recession, particularly for Oregonians from rural, racially diverse, and economically challenged communities.”
But while the bill goes a long way towards helping students access the education they need for good jobs there are still issues to address. Gaby Gardiner, incoming Executive Director of Oregon Student Association said, “The passage of HB 2835 is cause for celebration of the work that students, institutions, and coalition members did together with legislators this session. We also must not lose sight of the root causes of the prevalence of basic needs insecurity among students…there is more work to do moving forward.”