This content was published: January 11, 2021. Phone numbers, email addresses, and other information may have changed.
As more students face basic needs insecurity, PCC steps up to find a solution
Photos and Story by Sarah Rose Evans
According to statewide surveys, 63% of community college students reported some basic needs insecurity in the past year, meaning they were food and housing insecure, or even homeless.
Portland Community College’s SNAP Training and Employment Program (STEP) is addressing these growing issues by providing holistic success coaching and direct resources for students receiving SNAP benefits. It enables individuals to enroll in college courses, build skills and complete college credentials that lead to careers that offer economic mobility.
“Every student that gets referred to me, in one way or another, could use help,” said Talina Villao, a PCC Career Pathways coach. “When we show them where to go next, the response is usually a sigh of relief. They just don’t know where to start.”
Career Pathway Coordinator Rene Bussiere added, “We purchase things like waterproof backpacks so that students who are living in a tent can continue to be students. The best way to help those students who want out of that situation is to get them an education and into a job that has a living wage. But how do you do that effectively when someone is experiencing the limitations of living in a tent? Our coaches make it happen for as many students as they can help, but there are so many more students that need support.”
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic and historic summer wildfires, many students were struggling. College credentials, the most proven pathway out of poverty, remain out of reach for too many students, due to the staggering unmet financial need and basic needs insecurity.
Working together to address these issues, a coalition of anti-poverty organizations like Partners for a Hunger Free Oregon, public colleges and universities, and state agencies like the Oregon Department of Human Services are championing a solution. Before the Oregon Legislature this session is a bill that would establish a benefits navigator on every public college and university campus in Oregon. The navigators would help students access federal aid like SNAP, child care, housing and much more.
According to Kate Kinder, division dean of Career Pathways and Skills Training at PCC, students are leaving thousands of dollars in federal benefits and resources on the table. She added that, for students, a benefits navigator would ensure they access all the benefits they qualify for. For Oregon, it would leverage existing resources more effectively, while generating new federal and philanthropic dollars. A $3 million dollar annual investment in Pathways to Opportunity could generate an additional $7.5 million by 2025.
“A student I worked with went from housing insecure to a four-point GPA this term and just landed a job,” said PCC College Success Coach Heather Smith. “That’s all based on having SNAP and program support.”
The challenges faced by students today are a far cry from what many people think are the typical community college student. Many may be supporting children, or parents, and juggling jobs, bills, and much more while attempting to earn their education. They may be returning after years away from the classroom, hoping to advance their careers or retrain. And increasingly they may not know where their next meal is coming from, or where they are going to sleep each night.
Establishing benefits navigators would allow colleges to scale up the successes of the STEP Program.
“This is no different than accessing financial aid,” Kinder added. “We have to remove the stigma, because students are better able to complete their education when they have enough food to eat and housing stability.”