The commission tasked with overseeing Oregon’s 17 community colleges must do more to increase student performance, achievement and access, according to an audit by the Secretary of State’s Office.
In its report published Monday, auditors said the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, or HECC, had done a good job of helping to narrow equity gaps in enrollment and completion at state community colleges since the last audit in 2015.
But Oregon’s six-year graduation rates from community colleges continue to lag behind those of other states; enrollments have fallen faster than in many other states; and despite expanding state financial aid programs to offer students more money, gaps have grown among who gets it, leaving behind many part-time and older students who make up the bulk of community college students, the audit said.
Auditors called on the commission to collect better data on student achievement from colleges and to improve transparency around that data. They wrote that HECC will need it to help guide better investments in the state’s community college system as the schools weather financial instability in the years ahead.
The higher ed commission
Oregon’s Legislature established the Higher Education Coordinating Commission in 2011 to be the statewide authority for post-secondary education. It is responsible for helping coordinate the locally elected boards that govern each community college, and for collecting data from them to help to develop strategic plans and state budget requests. Across all institutions of higher education in Oregon, HECC is responsible for improving access for underserved populations, especially through state financial aid and grant programs.
The commission itself is made up of 15 volunteers appointed by the governor, including a representative from every state congressional district, along with four members of the general public and six members who are students, faculty or staff from state four-year universities and community colleges. The last time the Secretary of State’s Office took a close look at Oregon’s community colleges was in 2015, when it audited the former Office of Community Colleges and Workforce Development that was wrapped into the higher ed commission HECC shortly after.
The commission’s efforts to boost enrollment among diverse populations during the last few years have been successful, the audit found. At least 28% of students enrolled in Oregon’s community colleges today are students of color, according to HECC. That’s about twice the rate at most four-year universities in the state. Half are nontraditional college students, older than 25, and more than half qualify for federal Pell Grants available to low-income students or students from low-income households. But the community colleges are not doing enough to help the growing number of students struggling with food and housing security, according to the auditors, and the commission and the colleges are not collecting enough data on these students.
“Crucial student support services are inadequately monitored and supported,” auditors wrote.
There’s also a lack of data to explain why the average six-year graduation rate among students enrolled in Oregon’s community colleges is so much lower than rates nationally.
Oregon ranked 39th nationwide, with about 38% of community college students graduating in six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. The state has remained below the national average for community college completion – about 42% – for the last eight years.
“The system continues to lack transparency and accountability,” auditors wrote.
They found that the commission has done a good job of advocating for more state aid to community colleges to boost student access, but they said there are not enough programs to target part-time and older students and the cost of tuition and housing continues to rise more rapidly than the amount of state aid available.
“State financial aid still has substantial gaps and an inequitable design. Monitoring of college stability is minimal, despite declining finances and enrollment drops that outpace the nation,” they said.
Despite increased state funding over the years, community colleges are struggling to sustain their operations because of enrollment declines.
Oregon’s community colleges enroll 60,000 fewer students today than they did a decade ago — a 40% drop — while the state’s population has grown. This is a steeper drop than in many other states, auditors found. Even with state funding for community colleges above the national average, Oregon’s community colleges project they will need an increase of 44% in state funding during the next two years to maintain their operations.
Because of this, schools are struggling with financial sustainability and staffing. One major challenge auditors identified was a lack of advising and support staff at schools. Leaders at most Oregon’s community colleges told the auditors that they either can’t afford academic advisers or have very few, assigning up to 900 students per adviser.
High turnover among staff at community colleges is a problem fueled in large part by low salaries and being overworked, the audit found. Community colleges in Oregon rely too much on adjunct faculty, auditors wrote. About 80% of instructional staff at Oregon’s colleges are not on a tenure track, compared with about 66% nationally.
- Auditors made several recommendations: Improve data collection and transparency.
- Use that data to adopt a performance-based funding model for the state’s community colleges and reward them for boosting diverse enrollment and improving student completion rates.
- Improve financial aid to part-time and older students.
- Analyze and report annually on the financial health and sustainability of the state’s community colleges.
Auditors also recommended that the governor’s office and the Legislature help the commission and the community colleges achieve these changes by increasing funding and staff.
In response to the audit, Ben Cannon, executive director of the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, told the Secretary of State’s Office that the commission generally agreed with the agency’s findings and recommendations. The commission is challenged by budgetary and statutory limitations, he said in a written response.
“The HECC possesses neither the dedicated staff nor the financial resources to implement the recommendations alone. To implement the more robust system of supports recommended in this audit would likely require expanding the HECC’s authority,” he said.
A similar agency governing Washington’s community colleges has 239 staff, Cannon wrote. Oregon has just 20 focused on community college programs. The Washington agency has five full-time policy and research analysts and 13 staff dedicated to data collection and analysis. Cannon said the commission has one full-time employee dedicated to collecting and analyzing community college data.
Nevertheless, he said the commission “is committed to taking actions to support the goals of improving community college performance, student support, and sustainability amid persistent enrollment declines.”
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Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.