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‘We serve the top 100 percent’: California community college chief responds to Trump

Riverside City College. (California Community Colleges)

The leader of the largest system of higher education in the nation — California Community Colleges, with 114 campuses and 2.1 million students — said he is happy to clear up any confusion President Trump may have about what those schools do.

“We serve the top 100 percent of students,” Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the system, said this week during a visit to Washington. He hastened to credit the pithy summary to a predecessor. “I don’t own that line,” he said with a smile.

Ortiz Oakley and others in the community college world were taken aback when Trump took a swipe at their schools during a Republican congressional retreat. In his Feb. 1 speech in West Virginia, Trump touted the economic virtues of vocational schools.

“You learn mechanical, you learn bricklaying and carpentry, and all of these things. We don’t have that very much anymore,” Trump said. “And I think the word ‘vocational’ is a much better word than, in many cases, a community college. A lot of people don’t know what a community college means or represents. So we’re working very hard on vocational schools so that when all these companies move into this country, we’re going to have a workforce that knows exactly what they’re doing.”

Trump says community colleges should be called ‘vocational’ schools. Um, they aren’t the same thing.

Trump’s remarks were troubling, Ortiz Oakley said, because they denigrated an underappreciated but crucial sector of higher education. “I reject that,” Ortiz Oakley said.

The contrast the president was seeking to draw between community colleges and schools with a “vocational” mission is misplaced, educators say. Community colleges, generally defined as public two-year institutions, play a deep role in workforce development as well as providing associate’s degrees, continuing education for older students and general education for those who seek credits to transfer to four-year colleges.

In fact, the cover of a 2017 report on California Community Colleges is illustrated by a photograph from College of the Sequoias of a person wearing a face mask and other protective gear who is working with heavy machinery as sparks are flying. Which brings to mind Trump’s notion of “you learn mechanical.”

In recent years, community colleges around the country have evolved. Some are adding bachelor’s degree programs. California is making plans to add an online college. What unites all of these efforts is that community colleges are affordable and open to all comers. Tuition and fees for a full-time student in the California system total about $1,400 a year at the in-state rate. Many also get financial aid to help with tuition and other expenses.

Community colleges teach vocational skills — and a whole lot more

There are also various free-tuition initiatives targeting community colleges around the country. A new law in California eliminates the first year of tuition for new full-time students in the community college system who are state residents.

Whenever he comes to Washington, Ortiz Oakley has to teach people about what community colleges do. His message this week: “First and foremost, reminding our policymakers and leaders in D.C. that what happens here affects millions of Americans.” And the colleges have a profound effect on the economy. That should be a no-brainer.

“It’s not a given,” Ortiz Oakley said. Most of the policy staff in Washington offices, he said, comes from a traditional four-year college experience. But he added that historically, community colleges have had strong bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.

The chancellor, 52, who took office in December 2016, traces the origins of his career in academia to his time as a student in the system he now leads.

After graduating from high school in Southern California, Ortiz Oakley spent four years in the Army, based mostly at Fort Bragg, N.C. He went back to school after his military stint, enrolling at age 24 at Golden West College in Huntington Beach. He was a first-generation college student, son of a shipyard worker and an at-home mother.

From there, he transferred to the University of California at Irvine, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in environmental design and analysis in 1996 and a master’s in business administration in 1999. He became the superintendent-president of Long Beach Community College District in 2007, and he became known in that position for forging partnerships with local schools and four-year public colleges. In 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) named him to the governing Board of Regents of the University of California.

“But for the community college system, I wouldn’t have had a path in higher education,” Ortiz Oakley said.

Ortiz Oakley said he is troubled by the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back regulation of for-profit colleges and universities. He said he recognizes that some for-profit schools are doing important work. But he is also mindful that recent financial meltdowns that led to closures of for-profit Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institute had a major effect on California students.

“We saw the devastation students faced who were part of those for-profit institutions,” he said. “We think it’s the wrong way to go, to just open the spigot again and allow federal resources to be tapped to prey on students. That’s not something we’re comfortable with. Accountability matters.”

Another worry, he said, is the fate of immigrant students who are about to lose protection from deportation through Trump’s cancellation of the Obama-era program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. About 70,000 of those DACA students are enrolled in California Community Colleges, he said. Ortiz Oakley said those students — and others known as “dreamers,” who were brought to the country illegally as young children or who overstayed their visas as young children — must be protected even if immigration legislation hits a stalemate in Congress. “As far as we’re concerned, they represent California values and, to a great extent, American values,” he said.

A word about nomenclature, because Trump raised the topic. As it happens, some schools in the California system have the word “community” in their name, but most do not. Two are called “junior colleges,” one is a “trade-tech college,” and several more are “city colleges.” The rest are just called colleges.

But Ortiz Oakley said there’s a larger point to the name of the California system.

“A lot of us like the ‘community’ in the name,” he said. “We’re really about serving the community.” He said Washington should take note: “If people are serious about working to rebuild the middle class, you cannot do that without community colleges.”