New community college chief has eyes on Trump education agenda

Courtesy California Community Colleges Chancellors Office

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When he was hired six months ago to lead the 113-campus California Community College system, Eloy Oakley was expecting an administration that would continue President Barack Obama’s community college-friendly policies.

“We certainly were thinking of the election but like many, [we] assumed it would go the other way, and obviously the voters told us different,” he said.

Monday was Oakley’s first day on the job as community college chancellor. He said he’s keeping a close eye on the tone Donald Trump sets once in office to gauge the particular challenges California's community colleges will face.

“Certainly his picks in the Department of Education and certainly the direction the White House goes with regard to community colleges will impact us,” he said.

It’s unclear if Trump will support Obama’s national proposal to make the first two years of community college free. Some California community colleges including Long Beach City College, which Oakley led as president for nearly a decade, already offer free tuition for a year to a large number of students.

Oakley isn’t worried about federal funding to community colleges. It makes up less than 10 percent of California community colleges’ budgets, mostly through federal Pell Grants. Any changes to Pell Grants require approval from Congress.

But others in the college system worry about Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education. DeVos has advocated to use public funds for vouchers that parents could use for private schools.

“It’s not that we would be looking for our colleges to go from being public to being private,” said Jonathan Lightman, executive director of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges. “But rather that the federal policies will not distinguish between the public institutions, the private non profits, and the private proprietaries, and that would drain federal money which now does go to public institutions.”

The federal deregulation that candidate Trump promised would affect community colleges, for example. Some observers believe that after years of dropping enrollment for-profit colleges – one of the main competitors to community colleges – could start to rise again.

“I think the for-profits are going to find a more welcoming environment under the Trump administration," said Rachel Baker, a professor of education at U.C. Irvine. "So I think that’s something that the California community colleges are going to have to respond to."

The sudden closure of dozens of campuses in the ITT and Corinthian chains has led many of those students to community college campuses. Those for-profit colleges closed after lengthy investigations by federal regulators.

For now, Oakley is taking a wait and see approach.

“We are certainly in communication with the transition team in making sure that they are aware of our priorities," he said. "So we will just continue to work through this transition and see when we can get the appropriate audience to talk about how the state of California’s priorities and the federal government’s priorities can find a nexus"

If he does visit Trump at the White House, Oakley said, he plans to make a strong argument that community colleges can help the new president’s agenda. A national infrastructure program, he said, will need skilled workers that could receive certificates and degrees from community colleges. While people displaced by economic trends could get back into the working world through a community college education.

Regardless, community colleges remain one of the key pieces to the predicted dearth of college educated workers in the next 25 years.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, occupations needing an associate degree will grow by 18 percent through 2020, that’s faster than the new job growth for careers needing a bachelor’s degree. More than a quarter of University of California graduates and over half of California State University graduates began their studies at a California community college.