All In: A Podcast Elevates Student Voices and Drives Policy Win

By: Marc Goldberg (he/him), Skills Strategy Consulting

“Housing insecurity is an issue and can severely impact students’ academic progress, students’ GPAs, students’ ability to turn in assignments on time. When you are worried about where you’re going to sleep tonight or what’s going to happen to you tomorrow, you are preoccupied with that to a degree that blocks you from actually paying attention to your classes.”

Mt. Hood Community College and #RealCollege student Bakr Alkarawi shared these profound comments during a recent All In: Student Pathways Forward podcast episode, a podcast series that was launched to elevate student voices in shaping inclusive policies and programs that increase college access and address basic needs insecurity.

#RealCollege students from Oregon community colleges, including Chemeketa, Treasure Valley, Mt. Hood, Lane, Central Oregon and Rogue Community Colleges, have been on the pod sharing their insights on the resources and holistic supports that have been most helpful to them in addressing basic needs insecurity. During each podcast interview, students offer salient and practical solutions on what more colleges can do. Their voices remain centered throughout the episode, with college leaders and policymakers listening and reacting to the students’ testimonials and recommendations, building on students’ solutions and calls to action.

The All In: Student Pathways Forward podcast episodes have been widely shared with policymakers, community college staff and faculty, higher education leaders, and partners. This advocacy strategy has given equal voice to students in rural and remote, and urban regions of the state ensuring that we hear from working students, parenting students, BIPOC students, immigrant students, adult education students, students accessing skills training and stackable credentials — students who are typically not proportionately represented in traditional student leadership activities. In other words, it has allowed policy and decision makers to hear from #RealCollege students — from community college students who have complex lives, needs, and dreams for themselves, their families and their communities.

These collective efforts have been even more powerful when student voices have been coupled with clear and compelling data. The Hope Center #RealCollege Survey from 2019 helped illuminate the severity of basic needs insecurity that Oregon community college students were facing and has been highlighted on multiple podcast episodes. 63% of students across the state faced some form of basic needs insecurity within the past year. Additionally, the Oregon Employment Department identified in 2018 there were 448,000 Oregonians 25 to 54 years old either unemployed or working making less than $15 an hour without postsecondary credentials that could benefit from community college skills training. The value and importance of postsecondary education as the primary path towards economic mobility has been substantiated by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce research during the last economic recovery showing that 99% of Americans who gained employment had some postsecondary education.

The All In: Student Pathways Forward podcast has been a dynamic communication strategy for a broad coalition of students, community colleges, universities, the Oregon Department of Human Services (ODHS), anti-poverty agencies Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon and the Oregon Food Bank, the Oregon Student Association and national policy organizations like the Hope Center and National Skills Coalition that have all been advocating for new policies and investments over the past year.

The advocacy efforts of this diverse coalition paid off as the Oregon legislature made a significant investment in student success across the state by passing HB2835, a bill that will fund a Benefits Navigator at all of the seventeen community colleges and six public universities. These key staffing positions will help students access benefits and resources to address basic needs insecurity. In addition, the bill creates a community of practice to amplify best practices, and requires that students are involved in the design and implementation.

Initially policymakers ranged in their support of HB2835, with many legislators unaware of the prevalence of basic needs insecurity amongst college students, or the complexity and stigma surrounding public benefit access. With students at the center, the coalition undertook various strategies to gain traction and support for this bill but none were more meaningful and impactful than elevating student voices in this advocacy work. Community college and university students testified to the Oregon state legislature, participated in lobby days, shared their realities through Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon facilitated learning circles and surveys and spoke directly with college leaders at statewide PTO summits. Yet, we found that at times these inspiring and impactful efforts were time bound and not always accessible to policymakers. Increasing awareness and understanding of the complexity of students’ lives from students directly led to the creation of the All In: Student Pathways Forward podcast — a unique opportunity to elevate Oregon community college student voices that could go deeper in conversation to paint a realistic picture of these #RealCollege students’ experiences, challenges, insights and proposed solutions to shape inclusive policies, programs and partnerships.

While this HB2835 policy win for students has just materialized, advocates and community college leaders have been at this work for several years. Oregon community colleges have recognized this crisis, and its impact on equitable college access, completion, and the economic wellbeing of communities. The Pathways to Opportunity (PTO) statewide coalition was created, including all 17 community colleges, the Oregon Department of Human Services (ODHS) and different anti-poverty organizations to focus on policies, programs and partnerships that comprehensively address student basic needs. The coalition hosted statewide summits, reaching hundreds of stakeholders in virtual and in-person convening, and providing the opportunity to learn from national leaders while sharing emerging practices across the state. Hope Center President and Founder Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab was a keynote speaker at a past summit, as was former Secretary of Education, Dr. John King Jr., in addition to policy leaders from National Skills Coalition, Seattle Jobs Initiative (SJI), World Education, CLASP and JFF. During Secretary King’s visit to the PTO summit in Portland in fall 2018, he facilitated a student panel and emphasized strongly how critical it is to listen to our students. This was the catalyst for the All In: Student Pathways Forward podcast and other strategies the coalition has taken to elevate student voices.

Through the SkillSPAN network and Supportive Services Academy, the National Skills Coalition has provided Oregon and the coalition with extensive guidance and support on the Pathways to Opportunity initiative, planning and advocacy for HB2835 and the All In: Student Pathways Forward podcast. “What this [podcast] does is helps [us] to understand the complexities of the issue and points to the complexity of solutions that we need. So, if you are a parenting student…if you are an immigrant, if you’re living in rural Oregon with very limited broadband access, all of these challenges are different and unique but they all point to the inequities of access to education and how we need solutions for them,” observed Kate Kinder, National Skills Coalition State Strategies Director West and past dean and PTO Coalition leader at Portland Community College in the intro podcast episode. “Students are experts on their own lives and they’re experts on solutions and can tell us what they need. We cannot be informed or create policy that will work if we are not centering their experience and their solutions. [This] needs to include all of the students that we serve.”

The Pathways to Opportunity framework has been focused on advancing racial equity, rural opportunity and economic mobility since its inception. HB 2835 is one policy of many that are needed to carry out this vision in support of an inclusive economic recovery. Oregon has the chance to make a huge impact on equitable student success through these coalition efforts and there is an incredible amount of work ahead. The coalition will continue to center students in shaping inclusive policies and has seen the result of collective action.

Mt. Hood Community College (MHCC) President Dr. Lisa Skari summed it up well following MHCC student Bakr Alkarawi in the same podcast episode. “We talk about hunger and homelessness and these are community issues and really they require community solutions…Bakr has done an amazing job of modeling this in his advocacy.” It’s this advocacy from students like Bakr that has driven the PTO coalition. “I think the Pathways to Opportunity is an example of some of our best work and I just want to express my appreciation to you for putting a spotlight on it.”

Marc Goldberg is the Principal/Owner at Skills Strategy Consulting and has worked previously as a vice president, dean and director at community colleges in Oregon leading workforce development, adult education, CTE and career pathways programs for 13 plus years. He is passionate about student success and equitable opportunity, currently focused on projects like the All In: Student Pathways Forward podcast that elevate student voices along with those of leaders and policymakers to shape inclusive policies and programs.

#RealCollege students, presidents, educators, and more will lend their voices here with support from The Hope Center and Believe in Students.