Oregon colleges, universities to get basic needs coordinators

Lawmakers devoted nearly $5 million to hiring "benefits navigators" to help students get connected with public assistance programs, find housing or access technology for schoolwork with HB 2835.

Boxes of produce at UO food pantry.

This article first appeared in The Register Guard on July 16, 2021. 

When a college student is trying to study for a test, or working toward groundbreaking research, the last thing that should be on their mind is whether they have enough money to eat that day or if they will have somewhere safe to sleep. 

Many students struggle with access to housing, food and other basic needs, things that can make or break someone's ability to attend and finish college. 

"When your basic needs are unmet, it really takes a lot of energy and it has physiological and psychological impacts that make being a successful student extremely difficult," said Miguel Arellano, the basic needs navigator at Oregon State University. "I see students who after they meet with me, say ‘I don't know if I would be in college without this meeting.’"

Arellano's position, created three years ago, is the first and only one of its kind in the state. Now, every college and university in Oregon will be required to have someone like Arellano on its staff.

Lawmakers devoted nearly $5 million to hiring "benefits navigators" to help students get connected with public assistance programs, find housing or access technology for schoolwork with House Bill 2835, which was passed this session.

"I see students setting up meetings with me because they're in financial crisis, or they're food-insecure or they’re homeless," Arellano said. "So being able to walk them through the steps of how to meet their basic needs … really alleviates a lot of the stress, and it’s just a big relief for students. 

"That relief allows them to focus their energy on being a successful student."

Oregon does not have a coordinated way to track the number of college students who are experiencing homelessness, KLCC reported in May. Higher Education Coordinating Commission spokesperson Endi Hartigan confirmed this remains the case.

However, the need is still noticeable.

A 2019 survey of 14 of Oregon's 17 community colleges found students are affected by these problems, though. The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justicefound that out of 8,100 community college students 52% were housing insecure in the previous year, 20% were homeless in the previous year, and 41% were food insecure in the prior 30 days. This doesn't include those enrolled at the state's seven public universities.

Also, according to federal point-in-time data, just more than 14,600 people were homeless in January 2020 and the issue has likely been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In his first two years, Arellano helped 568 students, holding just more than 800 meetings.

"It really translates to helping students navigate red tape policies, eligibility criteria for community, state and federal resources," he said, "In my time here, I've helped students access over $1 million in state and federal resources such as SNAP."

The position also helps with college-specific needs such as financial aid and grants and access to course materials. 

The newly passed bill appropriated $4,999,150 out of the state's General Fund to HECC for more benefits coordinators. HECC then will distribute this money to the state's community colleges and public universities.

"… There was a process by proponents of the bill with institutions to determine college and university specific amounts, which the HECC will use," Hartigan said. "The institution funding is intended to pay the salary and benefits of a staff person at each institution. There is also some funding included to support the coordination of an inter-institutional consortia."

The bill requires institutions to employ and train a navigator and participate in a consortia with other higher education institutions to develop best practices, she said. The schools also have to provide "culturally specific resources" and make a way for students to give feedback on the process so it can improve.

The University of Oregon advocated strongly for the bill, said UO spokesperson Kay Jarvis, and is already in the process of hiring.

"The Office of the Dean of Students is in the process of hiring a food-security coordinator and a basic needs coordinator, both of whom should be in place by fall term," she asid. "Staff are currently looking at the details of the new legislation to understand requirements, potential funding from the state, and how that may support these new positions."

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