Q&A: Advising ED’s secretary

U.S. Education Department (Photo: AACC)

California’s 116 community colleges serve more than 1.8 million students, which is about one-quarter of all community college students across the country. So it wasn’t a surprise when the U.S. Education Department (ED) asked Eloy Ortiz Oakley, who has served as chancellor of California’s system for five years, to come to D.C. for a few months to share his knowledge and to help promote several key initiatives of the Biden administration.

Oakley took a four-month sabbatical to serve as a temporary senior advisor to U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona until late last month when he returned to California. Below is a brief Q&A with Oakley about that opportunity.

What was the experience like? ​

The experience was amazing and exhausting all at once. I got the opportunity to work with some amazing people in ED who are truly dedicated to supporting community colleges. Most of my time was spent working on the Build Back Better agenda for higher education, which included the proposals for the Completion Grants, Pell increase and, my favorite, America’s College Promise. I met many states higher education leaders throughout the country to better understand how President Biden’s proposals could work in various states and support their systems of higher education. As you can imagine, this was quite an eye-opener as each state operates very differently. Finally, I also got to work with and get to know Secretary Cardona. I can tell you firsthand that he understands the students that community colleges educate, and he is amazed at the work our colleges do. We are in good hands with his leadership.

What was your main job at the department?

​My main job was to support and advise Secretary Cardona on higher education issues and to work with the team at ED and the White House in supporting the development of the Build Back Better higher ed proposals.

Was there anything in particular that surprised you? ​

What surprised me the most was how many of the four-year university higher education associations did not fully support the Americas College Promise proposal, and how little they understood about the importance of that proposal to our students. It was a surprise but mostly a huge disappointment. I was also pleasantly surprised by how hard student organizations like RISE worked to support the passage of Americas College Promise. Because of their efforts, I am confident that the Biden administration will bring back the College Promise proposal in a future budget proposal.

How did the department benefit from you being there?

​I certainly hope that the department benefited from my time there. I tried to give the team an on-the-ground perspective of how their policy ideas would work. I also tried to share the wisdom that my gray hair has given me over the many years of serving in higher education. The department has some very smart folks who want to do great work on behalf of our students, and I just tried to help steer them in the most effective direction possible.

Is there anything you learned that you will bring back to the California system?

​What I am bringing back to California is a broader perspective than I had six months ago. The window of my view of higher education in the nation was open much wider, and my appreciation for the challenges we face is clearer. I hope to use this new perspective to help and support our system leaders not only to navigate the pandemic but to take advantage of new opportunities and position our colleges to serve students in the post-pandemic environment.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.