In Conversation with Chancellor Oakley
by Chancellor Oakley
May 13, 2019
This interview with California Community Colleges Chancellor, Eloy Oakley, was conducted and condensed by frank news.
frank: What do you think the most serious barriers and challenges are for students trying to attend college today?
Chancellor Oakley: First, in California, we're fortunate that we have some of the most generous support for students in the country. The community colleges, the CSU, the UC - our students have some of the lowest debt levels in the country, which is good news.
In the California community colleges, we have the lowest tuition in the country, which is good news. The challenges students have today, is the cost of attending college, not the cost of tuition in California. The cost of living in California is high, whether that's housing, transportation, food. The cost of attending college is rising and creating a huge barrier for students. Particularly those students that have to leave their community to go off to college somewhere else.
Housing is very expensive. The amount of aid available, particularly to community college students, has not kept up with the pace of the cost of attending college.
We see that manifested in California, where students are suffering from food insecurity, housing security, and struggling to go full time, and not have to work 40-50 hours a week. Those are the biggest challenges that we face today, especially here in California.
Why is California an exemplar state?
I think most of it stems from the commitment we made in The Master Plan for Higher Education in California back in the early sixties. That commitment laid out clarity about how the state was going to invest in higher education, and support various levels of higher education, and ensure that they work together. That's been a big benefit - students in California have tremendous access to community colleges. We're the largest of higher education in the country, so that access allows many students to be able to transfer to a 4-year university right here in their home state and in many cases within their community.
The access to quality public higher education, is unrivaled in any other state. Of course, there has been a tremendous amount of investment to create that access in California. That certainly has set California apart, and the Cal Grant System in California, which is it's own financial leg commitment to students, also significantly benefits college students, particularly those in the CSU and the UC. It ensures that we have low debt levels. All that put together has been a major commitment that California has made to higher education. And, I think, in large part why California continues to be one of the largest economies in the world.
Does this set-up benefit out-of-state students in similar ways?
No, it does not. Out-of-state students pay higher tuition. They pay the cost of attendance, or the total cost of attendance. Other colleges and universities still benefit from federal financial aid, and there are certainty scholarship opportunities for out-of-state and international students. They do not benefit from the Cal Grant System, they do not benefit from the subsidized tuition that in-state students pay.
What is the breakdown of in-state vs. out-of-state students in California?
Community college, system wide, we have about 10% non-resident students. The CSU is a little higher, around 15%, and the UC is hovering around 18%. It's a little higher in the UC, particularly at the flagships like Berkeley, UCLA, and San Diego. Systemwide, it's still relatively low compared to other states. You have systems like the University of Michigan, which I believe, are above 30% out-of-state students.
You mentioned food and housing scarcity as major issues contributing to the cost of college. How can we structure a productive conversation about these issues?
First of all, we have to recognize that in this economy, and as the economy continues to evolve, the demand for workers with some sort of post-secondary credential is growing very quickly. California has been in studies that suggest that 65% of all of the new jobs being created are requiring a post- secondary credential. It's essential for California to find ways to educate a larger number of Californians, and provide them access to affordable higher education in order to ensure that we have a skilled workforce to meet the demands of our economy. That's strictly an economic argument.
We need to ensure that we are investing in communities that have historically been left behind, whether those be low-income communities or communities of color. We need to ensure that members of those communities are represented in those who are completing a higher education. We have to do everything possible to our investment strategy to ensure that we're doing that.
It's no secret in California that we have a housing crisis. That's certainly at the top of Governor Newsom's agenda. The top of the agenda of any municipality in California. This directly affects college students, they have to be able to afford housing – that causes them to work many more hours than is beneficial for their educational success, and the availability of residential housing at universities is bursting at the seams.
We have to deal with the housing crisis in California in order to bring the cost of attending college down significantly.
Are there specific plans to address the housing crisis?
This is the top of the governor's agenda, and from a policy perspective, there are a number of things they are working on to significantly increase the amount of housing being built in California. We are certainly in support of those efforts. There are also efforts in the legislature, like Senate Bill 291, that will increase the amount of aid available to community college students to help offset that growing cost. Both of those have to happen since we are not able to overnight build adequate housing. We have to continue to push for more housing, at the same time, we have to recognize that we have to invest more in student aid in order to cover those costs.
Where do you see California fitting into the national conversation around college affordability? We’re in the middle of a presidential primary – what would you like candidates to focus on?
California is critical to that conversation, since California educates a large share of undergraduates. In community colleges alone – we educate 1 in 4 community college students in the nation. We educate 10% of the undergraduates in the nation, couple that with the CSU, that's well over 25%. California needs to continue to lead the conversation around how to best support an agenda to ensure that quality and affordable higher education is made available to more people.
While California's system of higher education isn't perfect, there are a lot of great lessons for the rest of the country. One is our emphasis on access over the years – ensuring that students from all backgrounds have access to higher education through the Master Plan for Higher Education that we've established. There is a great emphasis on workforce training and job preparation focused in the community colleges. That's an important component going forward for the nation since we really have to do a better job of up scaling the nation's workforce.
There's a significant amount of innovation happening in California in terms of how do we better reach students, and how do we democratize higher education more to keep the costs down? All of those issues are important to put on the table.
There needs to be an emphasis on ensuring that we do everything possible to reduce the costs of education. Provide as much support as possible to as many Americans as possible, to access affordable higher education, and reward those states who keep their tuition low. At the end of the day, states have to be supported and held accountable to ensure that they're providing adequate access and affordable education.
The final thing I'd say, is that we need to continue to ensure that all colleges, particularly those in the private sector, have the accountability structure that ensures we are protecting students, so they are not going into debt and not receiving the benefits of quality higher education. We need to make sure that students' gain for higher education, and borrowing for higher education, that that higher education is going to deliver to them a return on their investment.
Is there a particular question you would like to see asked during these debates?
The one question that hasn't been fully discussed is, how are we going to re-skill and upscale America's workforce? Just in California alone, 8 million workers have nothing more than a high school diploma, and these are the most vulnerable to automation and to changes in workforce. We need to, this is my opinion, a national crisis that we need to address. We as higher education institutions and policy makers, need to address the challenges of up scaling America's workforce so they can be resilient in the face of huge changes in the workforce.
What do you feel is overlooked and important to focus on within this topic?
A greater emphasis on the debt crisis students are feeling. This is a national crisis. Students are positioned today with a very difficult for them to accumulate over their heads. That has to be addressed.
There has to be less emphasis on talking about free college, and more emphasis on ensuring that we have affordable higher education for all Americans, and that we're providing as much access to as many people as possible. The debate right now is focused on the headlines of who can provide free-er college - whose plan has more free college than the other. While it's certainly important for us to lower the cost of tuition, what's more important is that we lower the cost of attending college - because that's something that most candidates aren't talking about.
The cost of attending college is not just the cost of tuition – reducing and holding tuition down is important, but equally important is ensuring the students have the opportunity to attend college and be able to afford it, so they're not struggling to make choices because of their inability to pay for their housing, their ability to put food on the table, or their need to have to work two or three jobs just to get through college.