Eloy Ortiz Oakley, the chancellor of California’s 116 community colleges, this week began an unpaid adviser position in the Biden administration during a four-month paid sabbatical from the community college system.
Oakley will spend his time away from the system on a temporary assignment as a higher education adviser to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. Oakley is expected to return to his position as chancellor around late November.
During his assignment in the Department of Education, which started Monday, Oakley will focus on helping the administration achieve its higher education agenda, such as making college more affordable and helping more community college students complete their degrees and certificates.
“The president’s higher education agenda is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to support Americans of all backgrounds. Passage and implementation of this agenda is my No. 1 priority,” Oakley told EdSource in an email.
Oakley added that because California is so “large, complex and diverse,” his experience will help him “speak to the needs of communities throughout the nation.” Nonwhite students make up the significant majority of students across California’s community colleges, with Latino students alone accounting for about 45% of students in the system.
Rafael Chávez, a spokesman for Oakley’s office, said Oakley “will not be paid” by the Biden administration.
Chávez added that Oakley is “taking accrued vacation and the sabbatical to which he is entitled” under his contract, which pays him an annual salary of about $337,000.
Oakley’s sabbatical from the chancellor’s office was approved during a June 15 meeting of the board of governors that oversees California’s 116 community colleges. The board approved the sabbatical in closed session “as a personnel matter,” Chávez said. Asked why the board did not report its action when it returned to open session, Chávez said the board was not required to do so by state law. The closed session was the board’s only business.
“The board’s action was consistent with the requirements of Bagley-Keene, which only requires a report out when a state body takes action to appoint, employ, or dismiss a public employee,” Chávez said, referring to the state’s open meetings law. “Since none of those actions were taken, there was no reporting obligation.”
Oakley’s office announced July 19 that he was taking a temporary position with the Biden administration effective July 26 to provide advice on higher education policy.
Pam Haynes, president of the board of governors, said the board fully supports Oakley taking the position with the Biden administration. Filling in for him while he’s away will be Deputy Chancellor Daisy Gonzales, who will take on the role of acting chancellor.
As the chancellor of the country’s largest college system, with about 2 million students, Oakley can bring vast expertise to help advance Biden’s higher education policy, Haynes told EdSource.
“Those who are from other states, I think, will want to hear what is happening in California and sort of pick his brain,” she added.
Oakley’s assignment with the Department of Education was cheered by Michele Siqueiros, president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, an organization based in Los Angeles that advocates for better access to higher education.
“He has had an indelible impact on our community colleges through his support for student success and dedication to eliminating racial equity gaps, ensuring our state has the educated and diverse workforce that is imperative to the success of California,” she said in a statement. “We know he will be an excellent champion for all students in his role at the U.S. Department of Education.”
One area where Oakley plans to advise will be around financial aid and college affordability.
As part of his $1.8 trillion American Families Plan, President Joe Biden has proposed making community college free nationwide. The proposal includes $109 billion to provide two years of tuition-free community college to all students.
In California, tuition-free community college is already a reality for many students, including low-income students. Eligible students can receive the California Community Colleges Promise Grant, which waives tuition and fees.
Many other students who do not qualify for that grant can get their tuition fees waived under the separate but similarly named California Promise. Colleges get funding through the California Promise that they can use to waive fees for students who aren’t eligible for the Promise Grant, or they can choose to use that funding for other purposes, such as helping students pay for textbooks.
What California’s community college students often struggle to afford is not tuition, but other expenses like housing and transportation. Oakley and other community college leaders in California have often called on state and federal leaders to do more to help students pay for those costs.
To that end, Biden has proposed spending more than $80 billion to invest in expanding Pell Grants, the main source of federal financial aid, to all college students. Students can use Pell Grants to help pay for those non-tuition costs.
“California has a very high cost of living. Housing is extremely difficult; transportation is difficult,” Haynes said. “I think he can be a voice on those issues that we’re working through here in California. And I think he will be an outspoken and affirmative leader when it comes to trying to see what can happen at the federal level.”
Under Biden’s American Families Plan, the maximum Pell Grant award would increase by $1,400.
Pell helps low-income Americans pay for the cost of attending college, Oakley said in his email. “This program is incredibly important to ensure that more Americans can attend and complete a quality credential and experience the economic mobility that this country needs in order to preserve our Democracy.”
Haynes also said she expects that higher education leaders in the administration will want to learn about reforms Oakley has championed since becoming chancellor, including changes to how California’s community colleges determine if students are ready for college-level math and English classes.
Upon becoming chancellor in 2016, Oakley advocated for placing fewer students in remedial math and English courses, as research showed that students who entered those classes instead of college-level courses rarely went on to complete their degrees or transfer. In 2017, a law was passed that prevents colleges from requiring students to take remedial classes unless they are deemed “highly unlikely to succeed” in the college-level classes.
Haynes called the changes regarding remedial education the “most transformational change for our students in terms of their success” that have occurred under Oakley’s leadership. She added that more progress still needs to be made. Earlier this month, she and the rest of the board learned that 79 of the state’s 115 degree-granting colleges are not yet fully implementing the law.
Still, far more students are now enrolling directly in and completing transfer-level classes than were doing so before the law took effect.
“So I think he will have a lot to say about that,” Haynes said.
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