August 22, 2023

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Eloy Ortiz Oakley always had a passion to help people, but he had no idea how to channel that passion into a career.

He grew up in a Southern California working-class family. Even though he was recruited to play football at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, he never showed up for class — because he couldn’t manage the 45-minute commute.

“There was … nobody around me to really help me understand the value of what that university could provide me, so I just turned it down,” Oakley told Roadtrip Nation in a 2018 documentary about the community college experience. “I didn’t understand where I was going or how I was going to get there.”

He turned instead to the U.S. Army, in which he enlisted and served four years — years he credits with helping him understand the value of education. After the Army, he went to community college, then went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in environmental design and a Master of Business Administration, both from the University of California, Irvine.

Oakley, who went on to be chancellor of the California Community Colleges and is now president and CEO of College Futures Foundation, will join a Strada Education Foundation webinar Sept. 7, when he and other panelists will explore Strada’s latest report, “The Value of Community Colleges: Recent Students’ Motivations and Outcomes.” The report captures several factors that motivated recent alumni to enroll in community college.

Oakley discussed some of the aspects of Strada’s upcoming research and webinar that interested him most:

STRADA: Strada’s new report, “The Value of Community Colleges: Recent Students’ Motivations and Outcomes,” captures several factors that motivated recent alumni to enroll in community college. Eloy, you’ve talked often about your experience as a community college student. Can you share more about your motivating factors for enrolling? 

OAKLEY: Getting into college for the primary purpose of improving my economic mobility and finding a path to a career was the only reason I attended community college. I had very little clue about what was possible but because my community college welcomed the top 100 percent of students, I was welcomed. The journey, in hindsight, was not straightforward. On many occasions, but for a person that cared about my future gave me advice, I may still be wondering through the maze that college can be for many first-generation students. That defines the work going forward, to clarify the path to economic mobility for all learners.

STRADA: This report found that former community college students’ perceptions of the value of their education are relatively strong for those who complete an associate degree or transfer, but weaker for those who complete certificates or those who do not complete a credential or transfer. How should community college leaders interpret this finding, and what actions should they consider?

OAKLEY: In my view, community colleges need to create more transparent connections between students’ goals, skills-based credentials, and employment opportunities. The information learners need is not as accessible as it should be when it comes to how to translate their interests and learning to job skills, especially when they do not complete a credential that has a much clearer connection to employment and upward mobility. 

STRADA: The research revealed earnings disparities by race among those employed full time. Fifty-eight percent of white community college alumni earn more than $48,000 per year, but only 47 percent of Latino alumni and 35 percent of Black alumni meet this threshold. How can community college and industry or workforce leaders address this gap?

OAKLEY: Let me be clear: Learning and obtaining credentials are not enough for learners of color. What is needed is more access to networks for learners of color. More-resourced learners have this access through family members or others who they routinely interact with, and this increases their connections to economic mobility opportunities. To address the disparities referenced in the report, we need to see community colleges and business leaders create opportunities for learners to engage with industry sectors earlier on in their postsecondary experiences and make clear the path to gainful employment, particularly for learners of color.  

STRADA: Community college attendees who complete an associate degree or successfully transfer to a four-year institution value their education at rates comparable to or higher than recent bachelor’s degree completers. How can community colleges engage students and policymakers to take advantage of this very interesting finding?

OAKLEY: Community college leaders need to work with local leaders, business leaders, and policymakers to highlight the economic gains of learners who complete key postsecondary milestones, and to reward colleges and leaders that enable learners to reach those outcomes. Leaders also should also be doing more to give information to learners, families, and communities about how their program offerings translate to industry-relevant skills and job opportunities.

STRADA: The report finds that the strongest predictor of positive perceptions of value is the extent to which recent students feel they developed specific skills during their education. For context, former students who report developing five synthesis skills — verbal communication, writing, critical thinking/problem-solving, ability to learn new things, and leadership — are 60 percentage points more likely to say their education was worth the cost and helped them achieve their goals than those who said they did not develop these skills. How does this connect to our ever-changing economic and workforce landscape, and how can community colleges and relevant stakeholders ensure students are acquiring the skills needed to achieve their goals?

OAKLEY: This is where “earn-and-learn” opportunities and classroom learning can have an incredible impact on supporting learners to achieve their goals, and in my mind, community college and business leaders are responsible for ensuring that these opportunities are aligned and accessible. The learning that students obtain in the context of work is critical to make the connection to skills. The more that we can show how classroom learning connects to meaningful skills in the workplace, the more motivated learners will be to continue their journeys.   

STRADA: Ideally, the findings will help spur a productive conversation about postsecondary and workforce opportunity and success. Given your expertise, what conversation would you like to see advanced in California, specifically? And nationally?

OAKLEY: At College Futures, we want to see a greater emphasis on socioeconomic mobility designed into the postsecondary experience that every learner can access. Especially for learners that have been historically underserved, creating clear on-ramps and off-ramps along a transparent spectrum of learning in pursuit of improving upward mobility is the conversation we want to lead in California and, in turn, have that conversation influence national dialogue.