Growing up in Southeast Los Angeles as the son of a U.S. citizen father educated in Mexico and a mother who was a Mexican immigrant, Eloy Ortiz Oakley says that he could not have imagined a journey that would take him to leading the largest higher education system in the U.S. However, Oakley says that it is the very struggles he overcame in his youth that inform his work as chancellor of the California Community Colleges system, which comprises 116 colleges serving more than 2.1 million students.
“Higher education was not just an afterthought, it was hardly a thought in my household or in my community, even though I had very supportive parents,” Oakley says. “But like most first-generation families, like most working-class families, success was going on and getting a good job that had benefits, that paid enough that you could raise a family and that was success.
“Now as I think back on it, I think what sort of informs me every single day that I come to work in this job is knowing that there are thousands of neighborhoods throughout the country and families throughout the country that still see higher education as something for somebody else, not for them.”
Oakley says that he is still the only person from his immediate family to finish college though three of his children have now completed college.
“Many of us who came out of poverty or communities of color, those experiences live with you and shape who you are. And I have always tried to hang on to those experiences because … certainly if you went back and talked to some of my friends from grammar school or high school and you told them I had become the chancellor of the California Community Colleges, they would laugh.”
Oakley says that he was lucky along his journey through higher education to encounter a few individuals who helped put him on the right path and helped him to “see a way forward that I didn’t see before.”
“And what motivates me is I want to do everything possible to eliminate the need for luck for our students,” Oakley says. “I am certainly no different than hundreds or thousands of young people that came out of the community that I came out of. I was lucky.”
However, Oakley continues, “Can we create a system that does not rely on luck? Can we create a system that actually invites students from all backgrounds” and thus “allows the great talent that exists in low-income communities and communities of color throughout America to flourish and not continue to shut them out?”
COVID-19 and the community college student
Working to ensure that first-generation and underprivileged students have access and opportunity to receive a higher education is certainly one of Oakley’s responsibilities in leading such a sprawling system of higher ed institutions. Yet, this work has been further complicated by a global pandemic that has claimed more than 500,000 lives in the U.S. alone.
“First-generation students have to overcome any of a number of barriers, even when they’re not in a global pandemic,” Oakley says. “They typically come from low-income families. They typically come from communities of color. And so, in those families, in those communities, there’s already a lack of resources, a lack of information first and foremost.”
Oakley adds that the challenges facing first-generation students and minority students are complicated by a “labyrinth of requirements in applications and financial aid processes” that “really requires a network or access to information to help an individual navigate that labyrinth.”
And thus, Oakley says that, if you are a student coming from a community or household without the information to navigate the labyrinth of higher education, your journey can be challenging and that the COVID-19 pandemic “only exacerbated that situation. Not only is there a lack of information in those households, but now there’s sort of a desperation given the health impacts of the pandemic” and “the economic fallout of the pandemic.”
Oakley says that this economic fallout has hit communities of color, low-income communities and first-generation students the hardest because they are often already disadvantaged when it comes to having preexisting health conditions and a lack of access to quality healthcare. And beyond that, many of these students did not have access to quality broadband internet before such connections became even more necessary as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S.
And beyond that, the “racial reckoning” that has happened amid the Black Lives Matter-related flashpoints of the past year “and just the stress and the tension on communities of color that exist right now as well as undocumented communities” have further complicated the quest for higher education for many disadvantaged students, Oakley says. Thus, all the aforementioned challenges “make it incredibly difficult for first-generation students to, one, learn how to navigate the system and, two, think about the choice they have to make.”
And such challenges surround matters of basic needs, like how to cobble together two or three jobs to cover rent, Oakley says. Or how to make ends meet when an unemployment check is not enough after a job loss. So often, the choice that such disadvantaged students face is whether to work to support the basic needs of their families or to pursue a higher education.
“So, these are difficult choices, and those of us who have the privilege of having stable incomes, having medical benefits, don’t have to make those choices,” Oakley says. “So sometimes it’s hard for us to imagine why students don’t continue their education. But there are so many choices they have to make every single day and we don’t make it easy for them.”
Community college enrollment trends
In typical economic recessions, community college enrollment increases as students seek the skills necessary to transition to new employment. Yet, amid the current recession brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, community college enrollment this spring has dropped 9.5% from a year ago, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Oakley says there are numerous reasons why the current recession is unique, particularly for nontraditional students whose children have been unable to go to school amid the pandemic.
According to Oakley, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit families hard, and, for first-time community college students, formerly incarcerated students or displaced workers, “they’re having a very difficult time trying to figure out how to not only go to a community college, but then figure out, ‘What do I do with my children when they’re at home with me right now? Who is going to have access to the internet? I can barely maintain broadband access by myself.’”
Furthermore, some of these students are unable to take a full class load and have had to drop classes because they are housing insecure and unable to access stable broadband outside of their respective college campuses. “They may be trying to gain access to the internet out of their car or a parking lot, or they have to make time for their children who are also going to school remotely and there’s no childcare that they can go to. So, they have to take care of these situations at home, or they’re having to pick up two or three part-time jobs just to pay the rent.
“So, it is not a surprise to those of us who know community colleges and community college students that this is what’s happening,” Oakley says. “And that’s why I think it’s so important for federal stimulus, emergency aid, state aid to flow as quickly as possible to these students and their families so that they can have the opportunity to continue to go to school and have an opportunity … to participate meaningfully” in the new economy that is being built as the nation recovers from the effects of the pandemic.
The completion agenda
And beyond simply focusing on enrollment, Oakley identifies four strategies necessary to support disadvantaged students on the path to completing a post-secondary credential or degree.
The first strategy is to fully grasp and work to support the tremendous financial need of many community college students, which outstrips the relative need of some four-year college students, counterintuitively. Oakley referenced an Institute for College Access & Success study in California that “showed that the cost of attendance for a community college student in the Sacramento area actually nets out higher than a student attending the University of California, Davis.
“And why is that? Because at the University of California, Davis, we go out of our way to provide students with financial support,” including Pell Grants and “access to local aid systems. So that is one of the greatest barriers.”
Oakley adds that understanding if a student is homeless and hungry, or perhaps hard-pressed to find the money to pay for a need like fixing a tire, completing a higher education often can become a secondary concern and community colleges should focus on programs that seek to meet the total financial need of students to help them on their path to completion.
According to Oakley, the second key to helping community college students graduate is “making pathways clearer, making them less cluttered, making them easy to navigate for a student.” Oakley says that in California such an emphasis on pathways is embodied by the adoption of the Guided Pathways framework, though there are other iterations of a focus on pathways, be it the Achieving the Dream model or Completion by Design.
“Every time a student takes a class, he or she should know that that class is going to count toward their certificate, their associate degree or transfer. So we need to meet students where they’re at. We need to stop asking students to meet our institutions where we’re at. So we have to change our structures.”
Oakley adds that many “predatory for-profits are attractive to students” because they created an environment that made it easy for students to take a class, even if such a class would not necessarily lead to a credential, a degree or a job. Nevertheless, Oakley says a page can be taken from the for-profits because, at a base level, such institutions focus on making it easy for students to take a class.
Beyond that, Oakley says that, when it comes to supporting the completion agenda for community college students, focusing on “what we call equitable placement in California” is important, which refers to “eliminating standardized placement exams and using a multiple-measures model to give credit to a student who has done well in high school or has other credit for prior learning and placing them at or as near to a transfer-level class or a college level completion class as possible.”
According to Oakley, standardized placement exams and standardized admission exams “have done a horrible disservice to first-generation students and students of color, and we need to end those practices.”
And finally, when it comes to supporting the completion agenda for community college students, Oakley says that what is necessary is a focus on diversity.
“We need a faculty and staff that reflects the diversity of our student body, so when our students come to class they see themselves. They see themselves in the classroom. They see themselves in the faces and the experiences of our faculty.” According to Oakley, a recent study done in California indicated that “there is something like a one in 30 chance for a Black or African American student to see a Black faculty member in their classroom. So, if you think about that, that’s horrible that they don’t see themselves in the classroom.”
Oakley adds that “working on all of those issues I think would really go a long way to helping more students complete and get into the economy and support civic engagement and support the sustainability of our states and our country.”
Advice for community college leaders
When it comes to giving advice to community college presidents trying to focus on diversity and equity issues against the headwinds of resistance to inclusion at their respective institutions, Oakley advises they create as much room as possible for their leaders to focus on diversity.
“I see my main job as providing cover for my college presidents, for faculty leaders, for faculty of color, for staff of color to come out and feel that there is … some room for them to operate,” Oakley says. “And so, I would ask all leaders that are in higher ed right now to create that environment for their leaders because we really need to give them the room, the space to do this courageous work.”
Also, Oakley advises community college leaders to lift the veil of collegiality that often attempts to paper over racism. Oakley points out that a “go along to get along” climate in some higher education settings prompts some individuals to use a veil of collegiality to keep their hands down “rather than raising it when there’s clearly an issue of implicit or explicit racism on the table, whether that’s in a hiring [committee], whether that’s in a budget committee.”
Oakley adds that “the reality is you’re not going to take on systemic racism in that manner. It is not going to be easy. It is going to be painful. You’re going to have a lot of haters and you’re not going to be the most popular person in the committee meeting sometimes, but somebody has to raise their hand and say what is actually happening or help others see what they may not see.”
So, boldly challenging racism and bias is necessary to effecting change when it comes to diversity. Yet, Oakley adds that this work requires courage, in that “you have to be willing to sacrifice your own employment or your own promotional opportunities to do this work.”
“You have to be willing to be courageous,” Oakley says. “I’m not saying you have to be reckless, but you have to be courageous. And I find comfort in my career that I have tried to push as hard as I can, not worry about whether or not I’m going to be employed tomorrow. And, you know, somehow or another it’s worked out.”
However, Oakley acknowledges that such diversity work can be complicated for community college leaders seeking to promote diversity, equity and inclusion issues in institutions set in rural environments not necessarily exposed to the diversity of a state like California.
But despite such challenges, Oakley says that “somebody has to be the icebreaker. Somebody has to come in with the battering ram and break the ice to let others flow through that pathway. And so sometimes you have to be the icebreaker and sometimes you have to support the icebreaker. But find your role and be committed to doing it.”
There is no question that others have taken notice of Oakley’s passion for equity and inclusion issues and applaud his leadership when it comes to courageously working to root out bias in the institutions he serves.
Dr. J. Luke Wood, Dean’s Distinguished Professor of Education in the College of Education at San Diego State University, says that Oakley “is a transformative leader who embraces equity in everything that he does and has actions that go along with what he says.” Wood says that Oakley “is not an empty rhetoric leader. He is a doer. And he has transformed the way that California community colleges think about and embrace equity, unquestionably.”
Wood cited the statement Oakley released after the killing of George Floyd in police custody last year as “one of the most powerful statements of any leader in the country. What made it powerful is he didn’t dance around what occurred. He was very clear about calling out what it was and how the value of the community college misaligned with what occurred.” Wood also notes that Oakley has recently released “a statement on anti-Asian discrimination that was also … very powerful.”
Wood says that Oakley has “the vision for success. … And he’s even changed resource allocation in the system to basically align with expectations around equity. It’s statements followed by concrete action followed by accountability and follow up.”
Dr. Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, calls Oakley “one of today’s great leaders in American higher education. And the reason for that has a lot to do with his style as a leader.” Mitchell says that Oakley “is passionate. He is committed to diversity, to equity, to student success, to inclusion and he wears that on his sleeve in a way that makes it incredibly accessible to all those who work with him.”
According to Mitchell, Oakley also “has a personal magnetism that draws people to him and brings out the best in all of us who work with him.”
Dr. Lande Ajose, senior policy advisor for higher education in the Office of California Governor Gavin Newsom, says that as “chancellor, from the moment he got the job,” Oakley “came out with a vision for success which was really the strategy vision document for the community college system that … had equity at the very center of it.”
According to Ajose, “The vision for success really called for specific milestones and outcome measures by which we would understand whether or not we were extending opportunity and achieving success in extending opportunity to California students. I can’t remember a document that has ever been created by a community college system that is as both aspirational and practical and that is centered in equity and extending opportunity.”
Michele Siqueiros, president of The Campaign for College Opportunity, says that Oakley was addressing racial inequities in higher education and “pushing an aggressive reform agenda around better serving students and putting students first … long before they became popular. He was talking about equity before that word became popular in higher ed, and talking about it and meaning it, not just saying the right thing.”
Praise for California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley,
the 2021 recipient of the Diverse Champions Award
Dr. Lande Ajose
Senior Policy Advisor for Higher Education
Office of California Governor Gavin Newsom
“Chancellor Oakley has the unique blend of being both a very dynamic leader with a lot of depth and substance over content area. I think he shows up as someone who brings both lived experience and policy expertise to the work that he does and to the vision that he has for the California community colleges and certainly an enduring commitment to issues of equity and inclusion for faculty, for staff and certainly for students.
“For me, Chancellor Oakley is like the Steph Curry of college equity. He’s always shooting threes. He’s in the middle of the court, and he knows the hoop may be far away but he’s taking those shots and he’s hitting a lot. He has his eye on the prize. He knows what his goal is. He knows how he needs to run the court. He knows how to include his team. He knows how to dribble down the court and pass when he needs to pass and shoot when he needs to shoot. It’s just a unique blend of skills. I think that is a part of his secret sauce, if you will, that makes him so effective.
“There’s no other place in the nation that could really tap his skills like California can because of the alignment of his own values with our broader state values, because of his skill set that allows him to move seamlessly across and through communities. It’s no accident that Chancellor Oakley also serves as a regent on the University of California Board of Regents and it’s because he brings that depth of understanding of what California students need, for what the state needs, for what the community college system wants and needs from the University of California system. I just think he’s an extraordinary leader and we’re just so lucky to have him here in California.”
Dr. Ted Mitchell
American Council on Education
“He brings his own personal experience. This is a lived experience for him. He knows these issues not just from the point of view of scholarship or demographic research but from his life and his family’s life, and that’s incredibly meaningful and I think is motivating to him.
“When I say that he’s a one-of-a-kind leader in American higher education, I mean that, and I mean that in part because of the work he’s [done] in a variety of settings. I mean … to have the same person be the chancellor of the community college [system] and a regent of the University of California system is in itself a remarkable testimony to his virtuosity.
“Unlike so many leaders, he doesn’t see divisions between the segments of higher education or education. He and his colleagues put together the Long Beach [College] promise program long before promise programs were fashionable to create pathways for students from K-12 into the community colleges straight into the California State University system. For him, there’s really just a long pathway and not these disconnected segments.
When people in higher education look for leaders who can not only talk about diversity, equity and inclusion but can live it and promote it in policy and practice, Eloy is at the top of the list.”
The Campaign for College Opportunity
“[Oakley] was instrumental in essentially putting us where we are today which is a statewide policy that prevents community colleges from using placement exams as the only way to allow access to college-level courses, and we’re seeing huge effects, positive outcomes,
in terms of the growing number of Black and Latinx students that are not only able to enroll in those college-level courses but are passing those courses — just exponential growth in those numbers.
“Eloy was never afraid to talk about racial inequality and the gaps that have persisted in higher education around race and to think about how to improve the experience for all students regardless of race and how to close those gaps and be very intentional in that as a priority.
Also, wearing his UC regent hat, he was the lone voice for a while speaking out against the use of the SAT and ACT in freshman admission. We were able to see last year, the UC Board of Regents approved dropping the use of the test. I think he’s unabashed in recognizing that we need to do better in our colleges and universities around increasing the diversity and representation of Latinx, Asian American and Black faculty on our campuses so students can see themselves in the array of faculty and staff who are before them.”
Dr. J. Luke Wood
Dean’s Distinguished Professor of Education
San Diego State University
“I think of him almost like a boxer. He has the ethos of care mixed with the action of a boxer. He has no problem making the decision that needs to be made because it’s the right thing to do even if other people don’t appreciate it. But once they see the outgrowth of
where he’s going and what he’s done, on the other side of that, is immense respect for him for making that same decision. I’ve seen that time and time and time again with him.
“He did this whole tour where he went throughout the state talking about issues facing Black and Brown students. The way that he speaks about the issues, he’s made our communities feel like he’s fighting with us for this change, like we are on the same team, as opposed to being a static bureaucratic representative of a large, bureaucratic system. He is in the system but actively siding against the system in areas where he knows it does damage to the communities that the system is trying to serve.
I could not think of anyone more deserving in the country than Eloy Oakley. I think that many of us were proud and still are proud to see him do what he’s done and to be recognized for it and to call him — even though I’m not in the same system — our community college chancellor.”
This article originally appeared in the April 1, 2021 edition of Diverse. Read it here. You can listen to our podcast interview with Chancellor Oakley here.