Educator says community colleges fill vital role

Preston Pulliams highlighted the importance of community colleges in rough economic times by drawing from his own experiences during Wednesday afternoon's eighth annual Southern Oregon Business Conference.

The Portland Community College president parlayed a $620 Rotary Scholarship and his tough-love dad's encouragement into a two-year run at Muskegon Community College in western Michigan, where he was mentored by an instructor who raised his expectations. That experience helped launch a four-decade foray into education that now includes a role on the Oregon Board of Higher Education.

Pulliams, along with University of Oregon President Emeritus Dave Frohnmayer and D.A. Davidson chief investment strategist Fred Dickson, highlighted the need for a well-educated work force capable of critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Before the conference at the Red Lion Hotel, Pulliams talked about challenges facing today's students. Many must overcome financial obstacles, others need more motivation and most face uncertainty because of the changing nature of jobs.

Even today, Pulliams said, Oregon has one of the lowest college entry rates in the country.

"We've got to generate a sense for high school graduates that college is possible and that they can get a university education," he said.

Funding for the first two years of college, whether from public or private sources, would be a great motivator for families, he said.

Often students arrive on college campuses lacking basic academic skills. While the educators are competent, Pulliams said, schools are beset by social issues ranging from drugs to bullying and gangs.

"Even the affluent ones need help," he said.

The bar for classroom expectations and curriculum has to be raised, he said. "There are lower expectations that we simply have to reverse."

Oregon's per-hour instruction expenditure trails that of more than 30 states, he said.

"Walk through the facilities and you can see the lack of investment," Pulliams said. "Oregon State and Oregon are great places. But go to campuses in Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania and you will see the difference."

Portland Community College has an enrollment surpassing 90,000, including 20,000 new students in the past year. Pulliams said PCC is the doorway to higher education for 60 percent of those students going on to four-year institutions, rising over the five-year average of 55 percent. Many simply can't afford to go directly to four-year colleges and universities.

"Others are looking for work-force skills, technical training so they can go to work in a year or want six-week certificates for certain jobs," he said.

Pulliams has seen another trend, one in which jobless workers line up for registration carrying their last unemployment check, hoping to pay for tuition and books.

Doubtlessly, he said, older students with families, not much money and unable to afford a house are highly motivated.

"There is a laser focus," Pulliams said. "When they walk into a classroom they don't want to waste time."

Still there are students with no idea why they are attending college and no career goals.

"We've got to get to them earlier," he said. "I love the idea of high school science academies or academies dealing with business."

In the past, high school students could drop out or simply move into the labor force after high school expecting to find a career, Pulliams said. "The days when someone like that could go into the timber industry or manufacturing and get a job with benefits and retirement are going away."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or e-mail business@mailtribune.com.

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