10th Anniversary Interview Series: California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Oakley

by California Competes


Topics: Accountability, Community Colleges, Data Systems, Degree Attainment, Employment, Enrollment, Master Plan, Race and Ethnicity, State Coordination, Ed Equity, Adults, COVID-19, Workforce


In continued celebration of California Competes’s 10th anniversary, Executive Director Dr. Su Jin Gatlin Jez speaks with California Community Colleges (CCC) Chancellor Eloy Oakley upon his return from serving as a higher education advisor to the Biden Administration.

Appointed to the chancellor position in 2016, Oakley is the first Latino to lead the 116-college system, which serves close to 2 million students annually and is the largest higher education system in the nation. He is also a University of California regent, serving a ten-year term that began in 2014. A nationally recognized higher education leader and champion for equity, Chancellor Oakley has focused his efforts on implementing practices and policies that close college opportunity gaps and positions the state’s institutions to be the backbone of the economy.

During their conversation, Chancellor Oakley shares his insights on what makes California's higher education system unique and where improvements in workforce development and coordination are needed to support an equitable post-pandemic recovery. Read further to learn more about how his work in federal higher education policy has shaped his views and priorities for California’s system of higher learning.

Dr. Jez: How does it feel to be back? What are you most excited about in returning to work at the California Community Colleges (CCC)?

Chancellor Oakley: The time seems to have just flown by. It just seems like yesterday I started working with the Administration back in July and then, here we are now. I'm excited to be back because there's just so much important work happening here in California, certainly with the California Community Colleges. We are at the front lines of the recovery in this post-pandemic environment. There are a lot of people struggling, a lot of people hurting, and we see that every day at our colleges. That's really important work. I'm excited to be back working with Governor Newsom and his team. I think they've got a focus on adult learners and I think they're the key to the recovery. I'm just glad to be back in the very best of all the 50 states – and I had an opportunity to meet with lots of different states, and it just makes me glad to be back here.

Dr. Jez: We're glad to have you back. So, we both served as co-chairs of the Biden Harris campaign's higher education policy committee, and you just completed your Biden administration stint helping them to fulfill their higher education agenda. How has your work in federal higher education policy shaped your vision for the CCCs and in higher education in general?

Chancellor Oakley: Well, as you can imagine, there was a lot going on in DC over the summer. A lot of that is reflected in the Build Back Better agenda which is the budget act. It is in the Senate now after passing the House. A lot of my time was spent on that particular budget agenda and everything surrounding that from increases to the Pell Grant to the Completion Grant proposal, and to the free community college proposal, the America's College Promise, which I spent a lot of time on. There was also a lot of the work related to adult learners. With the enrollment declines seen across the country and the challenges we're facing with some of the for-profit institutions, there's just so much going on at the federal level. There is so much work that the Biden team is trying to do to lift up students and institutions in America, and so much that had to be done to rejuvenate the Department of Education – because after the last four years, the institution was pretty much gutted. So, there had to be a lot of work done to get it back in a place where it could continue to serve students throughout the country.

After seeing all that and recognizing all that, what makes me happy to be back is understanding how unique California is in America–the fact that I'm having this conversation with you, a leader in higher ed in California, but I also am able to at any moment in time pick up the phone and call President Drake at UC or call Chancellor Castro at CSU or any of my colleagues in the AICCU institutions, and the fact that we routinely work together. While we sometimes get frustrated with the way things work out in California, that fact alone is unique in the country. That's a lesson I learned and a piece of hope that I come back with, because we have something that most of the country envy, and that is systems that actually try to work together. We may not always get it right, but we actually try to work together.

Dr. Jez: You had mentioned the enrollment declines around the country, and California, too, faces enrollment declinesand the community colleges are no exception. These enrollment declines have been largest amongst African American and Native American students as well as students outside the traditional college-going age (the adult student population). Can you talk about how the community colleges are addressing these dropping enrollment numbers and aiming to build more inclusive pathways, particularly for students of color and adult learners? I want to emphasize that it's not just the college's own interests in building enrollment numbers back, but it's also essential for California in its recovery.

Chancellor Oakley: This could be the topic of one hour of conversation because there are many elements to this. One important thing for all of us in California to understand is that this is a national crisis. It's not just a California crisis.This is an issue that I worked with Secretary Cardona and Under Secretary Kvaal to try and figure out what needs to happen in this country to reverse the enrollment decline, particularly among low-income Americans and especially among males of color. It's a serious issue, and I think we're all grappling with trying to understand what's happened during the pandemic.

But as we look back, we see a lot of things that were already happening before the pandemic. We were already experiencing a softening of enrollment after the Great Recession. We saw confidence in higher education start to get eroded in surveys like the Gallup survey that happens every year. So, we started to see signs of this already. We also saw signs that a lot more working age adults were trying to come back to higher education to gain some sort of credential, whether it's because they never finished college, or they never entered college after high school, and there was a lot of frustration building. So, here we are in the pandemic–we have working families with kids at home trying to figure out how to make ends meet, losing their service sector jobs, and trying to figure out where to find work. That's our population in the CCC. That's who attends community colleges, because we are completely open access, serving the top 100% of students. That means so many of our students were significantly impacted, directly in the economy or with family members who unfortunately had felt the health impacts of the pandemic. Then, of course, you pile on top of that, all the racial reckoning that happened over the last year and a half. So there was a lot going on, and there continues to be a lot going on.

We, in California, have to do a better job of recognizing how to reach those students who may no longer feel that higher education works for them, get them to understand the importance of higher education to their future economic potential, and then we have to do a better job of meeting those students where they're at and changing our institutions to meet them where they're at.

You see where there is growth in enrollment–places like Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire, University of Massachusetts Global. These are institutions that have catered to adult learners, and you see the response that they're getting at this particular time. These are the things that we're going to spend a lot of time talking about and a lot of time working on.

The last thing I'll say is it is certainly an economic issue. Students in underrepresented and low-income communities have been hit hard, and I think the economic issues need to continue to be raised. Certainly, increasing financial aid to community college students is something we will continue to work on. So I think all these things need to happen, and it will not happen overnight. Fortunately, we anticipated an enrollment decline. We implemented the student-centered funding formula, which took some of the emphasis off enrollment as a primary driver. We're focusing now on persistence and completion, and then turning our focus to workforce development and career education. I’m hopeful that we can do a much better job and regain some of that enrollment that we lost over the last couple of years.

Dr. Jez: I appreciate all of the state agencies that have the hard work of implementing and connecting the policies and the programs to the individuals that need them. That is such incredibly hard work, especially when there's so much need in our state. This segues into my next questionone thing that California Competes has focused on is higher education coordination. From your perspective, serving as both the Chancellor of the CCC, as well as a member of the Board of Regents at the University of California, can you talk about how stronger coordination across postsecondary education could improve the state's higher education system and any initiatives that are underway that will foster more intersegmental collaboration?

Chancellor Oakley: I certainly think this is an area that we need to continue to work on in California because we're such a large state, such a diverse state made up of different regions and economies, and we have institutions throughout California. It's in our best interests and our economic interests that we do a better job of coordinating. There are finite public resources, so we need to do a better job with each public dollar that we get. I think there have been significant strides. Anybody who knows my history knows that, alongside your former colleague, Bob Shireman, I advocated for a coordinating board in California. I testified before the Little Hoover Commission, and I still believe that there needs to continue to be an evolution of how we work together and what the state's role is in coordinating the resources that it invests in higher education.

I think that needs to continue. I think Governor Newsom has committed to doing a better job of coordination under his leadership. We created the Higher Education Leadership Council that reports to him and we meet almost monthly. I think it has helped really bring issues to the table that we really need to work on, but there are still issues that's very hard for either system–UCs CSUs, CCCs, the private nonprofits–to commit to, because they would have to give up some autonomy, authority, or resources. So, I still think we need to think more broadly about how we coordinate expectations and resources for the system. That's something that the governor will continue to think about, and I'll certainly support whatever we come up with.

I do think we've come a long way in the last five years but we still have a lot of room to improve. I think one clear example is a constant tension around transfer. We've now had two laws go into effect–SB 1440 and now AB 928–that are meant to improve transfer. So the question becomes why do we need legislation to improve transfer? Why can’t we do this through better coordination? Transfers are in the best interest of the state. So I think there are still issues that we need help with that we need to be pushed to do. I'm hopeful that the Governor and organizations like you will continue to raise these issues.

Dr. Jez: We definitely will. You mentioned transfer as a specific example. Can you talk a little bit about what you see a coordinating entity could do that would advance transfers?

Chancellor Oakley: I think the clearest example here in California is we don't have a way to project out what kind of capacity we need to accommodate the increasing number of transfers that we're asking the CCC to produce. For example, there’s been a lot of pressure in CCC to improve the number of students transferring, particularly students of color, first generation students, and low-income students. That's incorporated into our Vision for Success. The problem is that we don't coordinate this as a state. We don't say, “In five years, we want to see X percentage more transfers to the UC or the CSU.” We don't intentionally plan for that. So what is happening is the CCC are significantly increasing the number of transfer ready students who are knocking on the door of a CSU or UC or AICCU, and they're not getting in. So, we've got this bottleneck that we're creating because we haven't coordinated this effort. We need to have coordination around an investment strategy that intentionally looks at transfers and says to the systems that we want X number of more transfers by 2025, and we're going to invest X number of dollars to get us there. We're gonna create capacity at the impacted universities in the Cal State system. We're going to increase capacity at the nine undergraduate campuses in the UC, and we're going to find ways to incentivize AICCU institutions to open up transfer capacity. That's what coordination would look like in the context of transfer.

Dr. Jez: You’ve mentioned one of the priorities for the CCC focused on workforce, and I was happy to hear that because it's also one of California Competes’s priorities. I know that the Visions for Success has the alignment of higher ed and workforce in there. Can you talk a little bit about why you prioritized this? I think for many people they see workforce development and higher ed as separate systems, separate functions. So can you talk about the decision to put it in the Vision for Success and how you're tackling that?

Chancellor Oakley: I think to your point, you're generally right. The public sees this as a conflict in our institutions because our institutions see this as a conflict. We have typically two sides of the house in community colleges. We have the workforce and CTE side of the house, and we have the general academic side of the house. We've struggled with tearing down the barriers between those two sides. Then, of course, you have CSU and the UC and other institutions that are more focused on their primary mission, which is to produce more bachelor's degrees, more graduate students, and in the case of the UC, to produce more relevant research to the state of California and the nation. You have multiple bodies throughout the state–formal and informal–that are also involved with workforce development. There’s workforce investment boards, economic development corporations, and a myriad of federally or nonprofit funded organizations focused on workforce. So, there is definitely misalignment in the state around this issue.

While I was still Chancellor before I went to DC, I had a lot of opportunities to talk with then Labor Secretary Julie Sue, now Deputy Secretary of Labor at the federal level Julie Sue. So, we carried that conversation into DC. This is an issue that I think you're going to see a lot of focus on. I think you've already seen the seeds of it in the Build Back Better Budget Act, the Infrastructure Act, and the discussions that are coming out of the Department of Labor. There's going to be a lot of emphasis on what needs to be a priority, which is getting Americans back to work. That has to be the primary driver of our education institutions. Because without that piece, we're not going to have a recovery, and if we don't have a recovery, we're going to continue to erode our public systems, and we're going to continue to erode the faith in public higher education. That has to be a driving force, and that is going to be what I will be trying to convince my system of 116 colleges to make the primary focus at least over these next five years.

You look at California from the lens of what's happening on the ground, and you see the income divide, the wealth divide that continues to be created in California, and we're not going to survive that way. The CCC are closest to displaced workers, closest to communities who have been underserved, and those who are struggling. So, we have to be the leaders in workforce and economic development. That's going to be my push. I know we have many colleges who want that to be the push. We need to get more Californians back to work and in livable paying wage paying jobs.

Dr. Jez: Yeah, we have at once record state budget surpluses and yet the country's highest poverty rate. It's striking. In thinking about connecting the community colleges to workforce, what do you think needs to happen to make that connection?

Chancellor Oakley: The thing I learned about California versus the rest of the country is this is one area that we shouldn't have a lot of pride in–the workforce side. We are behind many states in the intentionality that they put forward. Now, you can't compare California with any state. Things are very different, and we're very fortunate to have 116 community colleges, which is unheard of in any other state, but you do have states like Indiana. The one thing Ivy Tech does very well for the state of Indiana is they have one focus, one institution that serves the entire state focused on workforce development. That kind of intentionality and focus and the building of competencies in this area has served them well at a time like this.

You also have states like Texas; the one thing that they are focusing on is workforce development. They have former Secretary Margaret Spellings leading an entire commission that's focused on improving workforce development. So that's intentionality. That's what we need in California. That kind of intentionality where we're thinking five years down the line, what do we want to see workforce development and career training look like? It's not just about training one cadre of individuals for a particular job. It's about having a system that continuously reskills and upskills California's workforce, because that's where this country is going. We, in my opinion, are well behind on that piece. That's something that we really need to look at examples. I know that the Governor brings up the country of Singapore a lot. We need to look at examples like that. What all those places have in common is they're intentional about workforce development, and I think that's where we need to be sooner rather than later.

Dr. Jez: So yesterday was the first board meeting of the Cradle-to-Career data system. I'm happy to be one of the Assembly Speaker’s appointees, and I got to meet your designee, John Hetts. This is an exciting development and something that California Competes has advocated for since inception. So this data system is going to connect K-12, higher ed, social services, workforce, and early childhood, with the plan to sort of be responsive to the state's needs. How do you envision the CCC CEOs, faculty, staff, and students will benefit from having this data system in place?

Chancellor Oakley: Without the right data, without good data, you never know if any action you take, any reform you put into motion, any bill you pass really has the effect that you wanted to have. I think that's where we're at in California. We have anecdotal evidence. We have some data evidence that we can gather over time or places like PPIC have a chance to look at over several years, but there's no way of knowing in any real time how things are going, because we don't have the data. So that frustrates a lot of efforts. That wastes a lot of money, and that wastes a lot of time. I certainly agree with the Governor. We no longer have the luxury of time to wait. The state has needed a data system for a long time, and it is about time. Ultimately, we need the data so that we know what's happening to our students along the journey from pre-K to career. That information will help us design better pathways for students of all backgrounds.

Dr. Jez: So the governing board just met for the first time. We appointed a chair for the governing board and an executive director for the managing entity. What things should the leadership of this governing board keep in mind as we move forward to get this stood up?

Chancellor Oakley: Any organization, any group trying to solve a problem as big as the data issue in California will have to make a lot of choices–sometimes make some compromises in order to get the work done. However you do it, anything that the group can do to keep today's students in mind, and what they have to go through in order to progress on that journey–a journey that we created as institutions of learning in California. If we can do anything possible to reduce the friction, to produce information that helps make the better decisions about that journey, that's the most important. Yes, there's a need for more broad-based research to be done, better data to be made available to the research community, or any of a number of other issues. We have to tackle the main issue first, and that is getting better information about a student's journey so that the institutions and the policymakers can make better decisions on what to do and how to invest in that journey. So, you just have to keep reminding yourself to solve that most important issue before you get to all of the other issues that would be great to solve along the way but may take a while.

Dr. Jez: Looking ahead, what are your most important priorities for the next year now that we are officially in December?

Chancellor Oakley: That’s hard to believe. Well, the most important priority remains getting through the pandemic and focusing on the recovery. The rest of the workforce in California–our faculty, our classified staff–are tired. They've been through a lot. They have family members and friends that did not make it through this pandemic, and so, there are a lot of mental health needs in the system that we have to deal with. We can't just brush them under the rug and pretend like nothing has happened over the last 18 months, and everything's been cool. So, we have to deal with that, and we have to deal with our students and help them to get reintegrated in their education, but not in the same way it was before.

So if there is a priority, an overarching priority is that we do not return to the way things were before the pandemic. We've learned too much; we've accomplished too much. We've been able to roll out and continuously improve online learning. We've been able to master remote work. We've reduced our carbon footprint because we don't have everybody driving in from all across the state to come to work. There are things that we have to hold onto and never give up again to go back to the way we were. That is my biggest priority–that the rubber band doesn't snap back. Beyond that, we're going to focus on improving the way we approach adult learners. We're going to continue to improve and roll out competency-based education throughout the system. We're going to try to improve the technology that we use to deliver education and deliver support to students, but fundamentally, we have to deal with the recovery from the pandemic, and that will be priority number one.

Dr. Jez: I appreciate that you are at the helm of the community colleges and are thinking about and leading through these issues in this moment of crisis. California and the nation are better for your leadership, so thank you for taking this role, and thank you for joining us today and sharingwith such honestywhat you're thinking about and how the community colleges are approaching these really tough issues.

Chancellor Oakley: Well, thanks to you too. Thank you for your leadership. You've been very present in the state, which I appreciate. You've been providing leadership, and I'm just glad to see that California Competes is able to celebrate its 10th year, and hopefully it'll be the first 10 of very many.