Overhauling financial aid policies to encourage more community college students to enroll full-time. Working more closely with K-12 schools and the state’s four-year public universities. Getting more high school students to take community college courses. Helping more students from low-income and minority communities to get workforce training or associate degrees.
Those are some of the goals that Eloy Ortiz Oakley said he wants to pursue when he becomes the next chancellor of California’s community college system in December. Oakley, who has headed the Long Beach community college district since 2007, was hired on Monday to become statewide chancellor and will oversee the 113 colleges that enroll 2.1 million part-time and full-time students.
“I really want to put a spotlight on serving our students and making sure that all of our students have the kinds of educational outcomes we expect our colleges to produce,” Oakley told EdSource in an interview shortly after the community colleges board of governors announced him as its choice to head the nation’s largest higher education system.
Among the ways Oakley wants to improve student outcomes is to reform financial aid. It should be changed, he said, so that it rewards and encourages students to take a full-load of courses and helps them with living costs so they do not have to work so much at off-campus jobs. Even though tuition at California community colleges is the lowest in the nation at $46 a unit, and most low-income students receive full fee waivers, too many are stymied by costs of transportation, books, rent and other expenses, he said.
The fees “may be low-cost but if students can only go part time, then a two-year experience becomes a six-year experience. And that’s a tremendous cost, not only to the students but also to the state. So we need to look at a better way of packaging financial aid to get them through in a more timely manner,” he said.
Oakley, who is 51 and is the system’s first Latino chancellor, was one of the architects of the “Long Beach Promise,” a program that linked several layers of education. Under that plan, students in Long Beach Unified high schools are guaranteed a year’s tuition at Long Beach City College and then are given preferential admission to Cal State Long Beach if they successfully complete required transfer courses.
Oakley said that he wants to similarly work with the statewide leaders in K-12 education, the University of California and the Cal State system, among others, “to try to forge the same kinds of partnerships that we have in Long Beach.”
The goal is “to build pathways for students regardless of where they begin, to ensure all of them have the opportunity to succeed. I look forward to working with everyone at the table.”
Through an unusual circumstance, Oakley is in a rare position for such cross-system cooperation. In 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him to a seat on the UC Board of Regents, a position that can last until 2024 and that Oakley said he hopes to retain “as long as the governor feels he wants me to serve.”
But in the interview, Oakley acknowledged that, unlike UC and Cal State top leaders, the state community college chancellor’s office does not have much built-in authority. “We are really a loose confederation of 72 independently governed districts and there is great beauty in that. Our 72 districts are very close to the communities they serve,” he said. His mission, he added, will not be to add power but to “advocate much more robustly for our colleges” and to help “move the colleges forward.”
Oakley credited his two predecessors in the job, Brice Harris and, before that, Jack Scott, for so much groundwork in making it easier for students to enroll in and complete community college programs and to transfer to earn bachelor’s degrees. More work must be done in low-income communities “where poverty continues to be a driver in the future of our kids. I am certainly going to focus on those communities that have had the hardest time reaching the potential of the California Dream,” Oakley said.
Another way to speed up completion rates is to encourage more high school students to simultaneously enroll in community college courses, with more of those classes offered directly at high schools, he said.
“The lines between high school and community college need to continue to be blurred,” said Oakley. “The more college credits students can obtain in high school, the better prepared they are, the sooner they will graduate, the sooner they will transfer, the better off we are as a state.”
The first in his Mexican-American family to attend college, Oakley enrolled at Golden West College in Orange County after serving in the Army. He then transferred to UC Irvine, where he earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree. His jobs at community colleges have been mainly in administrative and student services positions.
At the board of governors meeting Monday, Oakley said that his high school teachers and friends would have laughed if someone predicted that he would eventually become an educational leader. But his family and education roots, he told EdSource, will be “a wonderful experience to lean on when we talk about the needs of our students.”
Oakley will be paid $295,000 a year. He is succeeding Harris, who stepped down in April after serving since 2012. Oakley said he needed to stay in his Long Beach job through the fall semester to help implement a spending plan for a recent $850 million bond measure recently approved by voters, among other tasks.