In summary

Students presented California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Oakley with a variety of concerns, and his responses had a common thread: The community college system needs more money.

As school starts for the California Community Colleges system next week, students want to know exactly what another semester of remote learning is going to look like. Will professors have reasonable grading policies, and will they be available even if they aren’t face-to-face? How has the pandemic exacerbated disparities in access to education and support services? 

Students were able to get answers to these and other questions during a town hall with CCC Chancellor Eloy Oakley on Aug. 18. CalMatters higher education reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn and College Journalism Network fellow Omar Rashad moderated the discussion. Four students from across the state also asked the chancellor questions before he started taking queries from the general audience. 

Two overarching themes emerged in Oakley’s responses: Community colleges need more funding to meet students’ needs, and students need to voice their concerns with local administration and governing boards.

The four student leaders who took part were Taminya Nawabi, a second year student and student government vice president at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton; Gian Gayatao, a history major and student government president at Bakersfield College; Cadence Dobias, a second-year political science major at Grossmont College; and Feke Tutuila, a second year student athlete and secretary of a club supporting Pacific Islander students at Laney College.

Here are the takeaways from the event. 

Community colleges need money.

While the community college system was technically spared from budget cuts by creative use of deferrals, it will still have to borrow money in the meantime. Oakley said there will still be cuts because some colleges have tight budgets. Community colleges have received less federal relief funding because money is allocated based on full time enrollment, not the total number of students, and only around 30 percent of California community college students take 12 or more credits. 

“We continue to be shortchanged by the federal government when it comes to funding higher education,” Oakley said. One quarter of all community college students attend California Community Colleges, according to Oakley. 

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“We are asking everyone to call their member of Congress, to call our senators, to push that the next federal stimulus happens soon,” Oakley said.

The shift to distance learning has been rough

Nawabi asked Oakley about grading policies, saying that some faculty responded to the pandemic by intensifying coursework and grading policies to prevent cheating, which has worsened student anxiety.

Oakley said while faculty are struggling to learn how to provide quality education online, “that’s no excuse to put the onus on the student.” He encouraged students to make their voices heard with their local academic senate, so they can address these issues.

Students want more access to mental health services

After Gayatao challenged Oakley to commit to centralized support for student mental health, Oakley said he will continue to advocate for mental health and basic needs support, but that requires more money from the legislature. He called the COVID-19 response grant the legislature gave to the system a “drop in the bucket.”

“We are working to ensure that we create and support telehealth initiatives, so that all of our colleges have access all of our students have access to some sort of general health, including mental health services,” Oakley said.

Disabled students need more support

Dobias, a disabled student, asked Oakley how community colleges plan to prioritize support for disabled and immunocompromised students. Oakley said colleges take supporting their students very seriously, but they don’t always have the resources. 

Oakley plans to address this need by using the state grant to support disabled students, and training colleges on accessible online teaching, like closed captions, in addition to access to technology and the internet.

“It’s not the issue that our colleges don’t care,” Oakley said. “It is the issue that we have to find more resources and get them to them so that they can share them with their students.”

A more diverse faculty can help students overcome language barriers

Tutuila asked Oakley how he plans to improve language accessibility for students who do not speak English well. Oakley said the number one priority is to hire more faculty of color, including those who speak other languages.

“The more that we can diversify our faculty and our staff, including our administrators, the greater the likelihood that there are people on campus who understand the culture, the language, the traditions of individuals who have come from other parts of the world,” Oakley said.

He emphasized the importance of “decolonization of curriculum,” by rethinking the way colleges teach.

“We need to have culturally competent individuals on our campuses who have that sensitivity and who are asking the questions that you’re asking before the student even has to ask that question, is our content being received by our students in the way that they understand.”

Student aid makes education more accessible

An audience member asked about financial support for students who struggle to afford school. Oakley said that students can access the California College Promise grant, which waives enrollment fees, and the California Student Aid Commission, including CalGrant.

The CCC system won a lawsuit against the US Department of Education over its decision to ban the use of federal CARES Act funds to support undocumented students, but the DOE recently appealed. Oakley reaffirmed his support for all students.

“Our system will always respond by defending the rights of every single one of them,” Oakley said, “regardless of what their background is, that is a fundamental line in the sand.”

Students can find a list of state and local resources here.

Oakley also said colleges provide technology and portable WiFi for students who aren’t able to access those resources.

“It’s unfortunate that we have to jump through all these hoops, but until we can make universal broadband a reality, I know our colleges will do everything they can to provide that resource to all of our students,” Oakley said.

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