Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California Community Colleges System, the largest higher education system in the world, “came from the same background that a lot of students who access community college come from. I grew up in a working-class family in south Los Angeles, son of an immigrant mother and a father who was a [US] citizen but spoke no English when he came to California.”
Mr Oakley, the first Latino to lead the CCCS, which has more than 2 million students, joined the US military after leaving high school. He then enrolled at a community college and, like many students at those institutions, subsequently transferred to university to complete a four-year degree – in his case at the University of California, Irvine.
Uniquely in world higher education, the community college system offers students the chance to enter higher education later in life and transfer their credits to complete their courses at a university, thus adding capacity for universities and widening access for disadvantaged students. And California’s community college system is perhaps the most advanced in the US.
Now the state’s community colleges are trying to protect tens of thousands of students – those brought to the US as children by undocumented parents whose status is threatened by Donald Trump’s immigration policies, which Mr Oakley strongly criticises – while also enduring a bout of “angst” as they wrestle with the rise of online education and how to equip students for a world of work potentially transformed by artificial intelligence.
The CCCS is one element of the internationally admired California Master Plan for Higher Education, which coordinates the different roles performed by each of the state’s three public higher education systems. The research institutions of the University of California form one tier, alongside the mass-recruiting California State University system and the CCCS.
California’s community colleges have three primary functions. The first is to serve as a “gateway to higher education for the majority of Californians”, which “allows them, if they want to, to transfer to a four-year university”, said Mr Oakley. Community colleges thus extend the capacity of the state’s public universities. About 40 per cent of those achieving bachelor’s degrees at CSU are transfer students from Californian community colleges, and some 30 per cent at the University of California are such, Mr Oakley added.
The second function of community colleges is to “prepare students for the workforce, not too unlike the apprenticeship programmes in Europe”, he continued. These courses offer certificates in particular industry sectors – healthcare, for example – but they bear credits that students can use to continue their education at a later stage, even if they enter the workforce.
The third function is “non-credit education” (which cannot be used for further study) aimed at meeting specific workforce needs. Mr Oakley cited a Long Beach City College course training truck drivers to work at the Port of Long Beach.
This combination of functions “sets us apart from higher education systems [not only] in the nation but really in the world”, said Mr Oakley. “[In] a lot of places, those functions are done by different entities,” he added.
Mr Oakley took over as CCCS chancellor in December 2016. He previously served as superintendent-president of the Long Beach Community College District near Los Angeles, one of 72 districts that run the 114 colleges making up the CCCS.
The key contribution that community colleges make to the state’s economy, he said, is that “we touch the majority of the workforce of California. And we are closest to the industries that are creating jobs.” Community colleges can “change curricula much faster” to accommodate workforce needs “than, say, the University of California, which operates more traditionally”, Mr Oakley argued. That is important when advanced manufacturing, for example, is largely “computer-assisted” and requires a different skill set from that formerly required by manufacturing, he added.
The idea that people can get by with a high school diploma alone is “quickly becoming less true”, Mr Oakley said. “Now some kind of post-secondary credential is required to get in, because most of the jobs being created are technology-assisted.”
When it comes to funding, California’s support for community colleges is “probably the most generous…in the country”; as a result, they “have the lowest tuition [fees] in the country, of any higher education institutions”, the chancellor said. Tuition costs $46 (£34) per credit unit, translating to $600 per full semester or $1,200 to $1,300 a year, he added.
California’s community colleges saw $100 million cut from their state funding in 2011, which pushed up tuition from $36 a unit to $46.
Yet under a bill signed into law by Jerry Brown, the state’s governor, earlier this year, California will now waive the first year of tuition fees for students at community colleges.
Mr Oakley explained that this initiative grew out of Barack Obama’s America’s College Promise plan, which would have provided two years of community college tuition-free nationwide. Although the plan was thwarted by a lack of support in Congress, it inspired a statewide programme in Tennessee and then in California, all based on the realisation that the changing nature of modern employment makes some form of post-secondary education increasingly “the default”, Mr Oakley said.
Of his own experience, he said that “going on to college was never something that, in my family, was discussed much – it wasn’t an expectation”. Although he scored good grades at high school, he “didn’t really have that network that pushed me towards [college], and I didn’t know how I was going to navigate it financially” – and so he did not go to college. “We’ve built a higher education system that can be very intimidating, can be very difficult to navigate well,” he added.
Coming out of the military after high school, Mr Oakley felt that he “had intelligence but I was lacking a piece of paper that verified that”. So he enrolled at Golden West College, a community college in Orange County, later transferring to UC Irvine to complete a bachelor’s degree in environmental analysis.
“The great thing about a community college system is it provides opportunities for first, second, [and] third chances to individuals who may not have thought they could get to university right out of school,” Mr Oakley said. This “sets us apart from most of the rest of the world”, he added.
He continued of his own experience: “That informs my thinking every day, about how do you create a system that doesn’t put the onus on students’ luck, [but] that puts the onus on giving students an opportunity [so], if they choose, [they] can realise whatever educational outcome they want to achieve.”
When it comes to challenges for the CCCS, one is Mr Trump’s decision to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, the Obama programme that gave temporary protection to undocumented migrants brought to the US as children by their parents.
The CCCS has “the largest number of DACA students and undocumented students of any system of higher education”, said Mr Oakley, who cites a figure of about 70,000 DACA students in the system and a further 200,000 entirely undocumented students. The CCCS has “provided testimony” in the California attorney general’s attempt to sue the Trump administration over the withdrawal of DACA, he added, with UC and CSU also having “worked closely together with the governor” in opposition to the move.
“These are individuals who came to this country by no choice of their own, as children. They have known only this country,” Mr Oakley said. They have been “working, contributing, going to school”, yet now “they have a federal government telling them they may not be welcome here any more”, he continued. “That, I think, is the antithesis of what America has been all about.”
A challenge for the future is the potential further transformation of work by the artificial intelligence technologies created by California’s Silicon Valley. “As community college educators, we have to begin to re-examine how we’re going to be relevant to students who are walking into that environment,” Mr Oakley said. “It’s causing us a lot of reflection, and right now that reflection creates a lot of angst, particularly among our faculty and administrators.
“What is the future of our bricks-and-mortar colleges in an era where everything is in the cloud and information is available to all students on a small device? Like a lot of institutions, we’re struggling with that, as we’re right in the middle of that wave.”
While California’s community colleges face pressing challenges, their model may offer lessons for the rest of the world as governments wrestle with the problem of expanding access to higher education without leaving students or taxpayers with unsustainable costs.