California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley announced on Monday that he will be temporarily leaving his position this week to accept a temporary position as a special adviser to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.
Oakley, who also serves a member of the University of California system Board of Regents and was previously President of Long Beach City College, is expected to help Cardona and other education leaders build up President Joe Biden’s higher education policy for several months. Oakley’s community college experience is expected to come into play on several key issues, such as Biden’s $109 billion attempt to create a two-year tuition-free community college program, and giving extra assistance to colleges that serve minorities, students originally from other countries, and those in lower-income areas.
“Chancellor Oakley’s temporary assignment to work as a special advisor to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona is a win for California and the nation, providing more opportunity to improve higher education policy and help millions of American families,” said California Community Colleges Board of Governors President Pamela Haynes in a statement on Monday. “Answering this call to service is a recognition of work our system is leading.”
For Oakley himself, he hopes to address how to bring students back to community colleges as enrollment is down overall nationwide due in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic. In California alone, community college enrollment has gone down by nearly 190,000 students, or 12%, between semesters in 2019 and 2020.
“This past year has certainly been a challenge, and I think that is why it is important to put a focus on the recovery for the kinds of communities that California community colleges serve and community colleges across the country serve,” said Oakley. “It is a sensitive time in California and throughout the nation. And I think this is a critical time also to make sure the president’s agenda gets passed and implemented as soon as possible to help more Americans recover from the pandemic.”
However, while many praised Oakley receiving the temporary new position, many others called out Oakley for leaving at the wrong time and being part of what many consider a futile effort.
“Community college in its essence is transient,” explained Marco Castro, a former community college administrator and current community college-University student transition expert, to the Globe on Tuesday. “Many there either start there as a build-up for a University move after two years, or go there long enough to knock out prerequisite classes early and on the cheap. But this community college plan, will it give a free two years to everyone? Is the 45-year-old taking a pottery class there covered? What about someone already with a degree hoping to get another? What about field trips or commute costs. Are those covered? What about those that offer room and board? Again, are they covered?”
“I’m happy they have community college experts going in to help them make heads and tails of all of this, but there is no way that any plan they come up with will make people happy. Especially that price tag of over $100 billion Biden gave out there to help start up the program, and especially that, even with tuition covered, students will still need to take out loans as jobs will not cover other expenses. Students would rather have things like loan forgiveness, and Biden, although he has done a few things, is largely not budging on it. And there is trillions in student debt.”
“Oakley and everyone else trying to change up the education system are going to find that the system is going to be really hard to change and that they are ignoring some of the biggest hindrances to students today like student loan interest.”
Chancellor Oakley is expected back in his CCC role sometime this fall.
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