On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, host Amrit Ahluwalia was joined by Eloy Oakley to discuss the present state of the higher education system, and dive into the value proposition that learners are looking for.
Amrit Ahluwalia (00:02):Eloy, welcome to the Illumination Podcast. It's great to be chatting with you.
Eloy Oakley (00:06):Well, it's great to be here. Great to join you.
Amrit Ahluwalia (00:09):So you're in sort of, I guess, a post transitionary stage of your career you came out of the community co California Community College System. You're now leading the College Futures Foundation. How have you found that transition?
Eloy Oakley (00:24):Well, I, I have found the transition pretty smooth so far. I had been working with the College Teachers Foundation for many years. They supported many of the things that we did in the California Community College's Chancellor's Office, but I was also member of the Board of the Foundation for eight years prior. So I'd seen the evolution of the foundation very familiar with it. So in some ways, this was a perfect transition for me. I got to transition into an organization that cared about the same things that I continue to care about, has been working in California and believes in supporting students in the same way that I did when I was at the California Community Colleges. So, so far so good.
Amrit Ahluwalia (01:04):You know what, one question I, I have to ask you, and you know, cuz it's rare we get to talk to folks who've come out of a a, a presidency and into a role like you're in now. Do you find it a little bit freeing to not be in as maybe political of a role as you were previously is where you are today?
Eloy Oakley (01:23):Well, you know, it's, it's a funny thing. I get, I get that question a lot. I always try to always speak what was on my mind and try not to be constrained by political correctness at the same time, you know, there, there is a certain way about doing business that you have to go about when you work in the capital of a state or in the capital of the country, and you have to maintain relationships with perhaps legislature, legislators that you like, some that you don't like. So in some ways it is a little free not to have to worry about that anymore. It's not that I would change the way I talk about things, but I certainly change who I talk to about things.
Amrit Ahluwalia (02:11):That's fair. And you know, it's actually, that wasn't intentional, but it's almost a perfect segue because obviously you and I have been connected on LinkedIn for quite some time and I'd say about a month, maybe a month and a half ago, you posted that you'd launched a podcast of your own, I won't take it personally, <laugh>. And it's <laugh>, it's called The Rant. Which I mean, my God, how could you not love that, that title? So, let me, lemme, what was the inspiration behind creating the podcast in the first place? And please walk me through the inspiration behind the man.
Eloy Oakley (02:44):Sure. Well, you know I had lots of inspiration from people like you who have been doing this for a little while. I've, I've had the pleasure of being on a, on a few podcasts, but no, for me, it's, you know, during the pandemic I won't blame this all on the Pandemic, but during the pandemic, I got to watch a lot of podcasts, particularly on YouTube. Yeah. And I just became interested in learning more about it. You know, I'd been active for many years on social media, particularly Twitter. You know, Twitter was, and continues to go through its issues. It's not exactly my favorite platform anymore. But nonetheless I just felt at some point you, you know, I wanted to have conversations with people I like with people who I think are interesting. And then I thought, well, why not share those conversations with whoever wants to listen?
(03:39):And hopefully given, you know, all my years in higher education, hopefully we can give some insights to people who are from the outside looking in or for, you know, leaders who are trying to advance in their careers, or for people in the media who are trying to understand this crazy world that we call the higher education system. You know, just use my experience to get to talk about how, what I've seen on the other side of the curtain and, and just bring in guests who can help me talk about it and think about maybe there's a different way of doing the work that we've done for decades.
Amrit Ahluwalia (04:15):Absolutely. Well, you're, you're seven episodes in at this point, <laugh> you've had some pretty interesting guests already. I see Paul Leblanc on there Samir Good Carry and Bob Shireman. What for, for a listener, for someone who's trying to find a new podcast, what would be the connective tissue between the episodes that you published so far? Like, what, what's the thing that that brings your podcast to life
Eloy Oakley (04:38):Well, first of all, there's something to be said about the title. You know, it, it's, it's well you know, I, I got a lot of questions at first, you know, why would you pick a title like the Rant? It's just gonna turn people off, said, well, if you know me, you know, I love to, to rant about things, <laugh>. There are some things that really annoy me about the American Higher Education system, and that's what I'm gonna talk about. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, you could tune in and listen or you cannot. But the connective tissue, well, you know, obviously I'm new to this, you know, what it's like to be new to a platform. You're trying to get the feel for what works, what doesn't work. But the way I tried to approach this is take an issue and then spend multiple episodes trying to dissect it.
(05:26):Because, you know, for example, one of the initial series was on the standardized testing and college admissions. It can be a pretty complex issue. And then you talking about an organization like the College Board, which has been around for a long time, has its fingers in so many things. I didn't feel that I could do justice, you know, to just spend 15, 20 minutes trying to talk about the issue. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. And then the next series of episodes were about proposed changes from the Department of Education. And and then sort of the connective tissues you described is, I've had experiences in those areas. So can I bring my experience, my connection to people in, in associated with those issues to a conversation that will help people better understand? So on the Department of Education changes third party servicer, and the changes to the Dear Colleague letter regarding bundled services I wanted to bring people from both sides of the perspective to have a conversation about, you know, what this is all about and what is the best way of handling concerns about a marketplace that has shown a tendency to support predatory practices mm-hmm.
(06:49): So, so that, that's sort of the way I've approached it. Where it goes from here, who knows. But at least it gives me a chance to talk to friends and people that I, that I think are interested.
Amrit Ahluwalia (07:03):It's a pretty good, good, good excuse. You know, it's, it's funny you mentioned it the way that people it, it consume media today. And I, I really think in, in the last two or three years has changed so much. You know, our, our publication been operating since 2011. We must have a thousand interviews in the bank. You, yourself, you've done, I I wanna say three or four with us over the past few years where we got on a call and we recorded an interview, and then Right. We transcribed it and published as a written piece. And it, it, it's one of these things that, it's fascinating the way people love to engage with material in, in the, the, the vocal setting and, and trying to create more pathways for folks to, to highlight ideas in, in new formats is something that's been, I'll tell you since we launched Illumination, something I've really enjoyed as well. Just for folks that are listening, by the way you can find the rant on, on any podcast provider, just search the rant. It might be worth punching in ELO's name as well. That's Eloy Ortiz Oakley yeah, I,
Eloy Oakley (08:07):Lauren, there's a few rants out there.
Amrit Ahluwalia (08:09):There might be a few rats out there. Now let's, let's kind of get into some, some of the topics that are top of mind for you. You know, when you think about, especially the public higher education space today, what are some of the key challenges that we need to be aware of? What are some of the things you're tracking?
Eloy Oakley (08:24):Well, some of the things I'm tracking, you know, first of all, there's this whole concern about enrollment decline. It was enrollment decline prior to the pandemic. Certainly my experience in the community colleges at soon after the Great Recession or just before the Great Recession, community college enrollment peaked at around 2.7, 2.8 million. When I became 10 in 2016, it had gone down to about 2.1 million. And when I left, it was hovering around 1.8 million. The pandemic certainly accelerated the enrollment decline but that enrollment decline has been happening throughout the country in just about every place. And it's also affected for your regional universities. It's affected some of the smaller private, nonprofit liberal arts colleges. You know, we've had several closures of private nonprofits here in California. So my interest is having a real conversation about what's going on, because traditionally, particularly in the publics, they tend to blame an enrollment decline on something else.
(09:36):Well, it's the economy's fault. Well, people are going back to work rather than taking a hard look and actually asking the learners, why are you not coming anymore? Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. And what's happening now is there's, learners are asking different questions about the value proposition of going to a college or a university. And that's a fundamentally important question because I think the pandemic gave learners a taste for what it means to be hybrid, what it means to have more flexibility. The pandemic also created a situation where people are questioning what they're paying for, particularly given the rising cost of education, and particularly higher education. So I think there's a fundamental shift in the way that learners are approaching getting their post-secondary education. And I think that's going to fundamentally shift the way that colleges and universities have to react. And for me, being from the community college system, community college system is the most adept at changing. But even they are being challenged by how fast things are changing in the landscape, and how fast students, learners are rethinking what they want from their community college. So you can say, you know, they're pushing more online, more hybrid, but it's more than that. It is the way that we can better personalize the post-secondary experience for a learner that will, you know, ultimately lead to who succeeds in this environment and who doesn't.
Amrit Ahluwalia (11:21):That's a fascinating thought. I, the, the concept of a personalization at scale has come up so many times in the past few days, you wouldn't believe, and it's because it, it really is, it's core to the, the question of what's the value that we're bringing to the table? And, and, you know, I think you're absolutely right. One of the things that's did not to go on a rant one of the things that's really bothered me about the, the sort of post pandemic ecosystem that we find ourselves in is how quickly people look at it and say, well, because of the pandemic enrollments are down, right? Because of the, and we haven't recovered. They're like, no, no, no, no, no. This is an acceleration of trends. Right? This is not something that came out of the blue. And if you talk to, you know, anyone who's been watching enrollment trends for anything more than three years, they'll tell you the same thing. This is a decades long trend. So that's right. As you look at the, the sort of changing landscape of the post-secondary space, and, you know, we'll get into critical actions in a second, but at, from a cultural perspective, how is the shifting labor market landscape, especially as it relates to the need for ongoing upskilling and reskilling influencing the way that learners think about their relationship with the institution, especially in terms of needing consistent access to, to ongoing learning opportunities. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. And why has higher education been so slow to react?
Eloy Oakley (12:44):Well, I'll start with the last question first. I mean, higher education is designed to react slow. I mean, it is purposely designed to withstand or push back on momentary changes, whether they're political changes or cultural changes. So I think there's an inherent design issue that we have to think about. I mean, if those of us who have been on the inside, I mean, everything is, you know, run by a committee. There are multiple places where you have to discuss and debate any change. So higher education is and was purposely designed to slow change. Now what's happening is that those functions are becoming a hindrance to adapting to what's going on in the environment. And part of this has been driven by employers. Employers are talking more and more about skills-based hiring. Now, having said that, there aren't a lot of examples of employers who are actually doing skills-based hiring, but there is a lot of discussion about that employers are taking more ownership over upskilling or reskilling their own workforce.
(14:03):I mean, there's lots of examples of that from Walmart to Disney to Chipotle, to Amazon. You know, every large Fortune 500 company has been engaged in one way or another intentionally finding ways to upskill or reskill its own workforce. And part of the reason is that they no longer believe that partnering with the local public college or university is always the best choice. And you've had the creation of marketplaces, you know, the, the guilds marketplace the in stride marketplace. So all these trends continue to, to expand. And I think those colleges and, and there are examples of publics and nonprofits that have adapted to this change. I mean, you know, when I was in the Department of Education and I was looking at the enrollment trends that were appearing in the data, it was clear examples of how the only universities that were growing at that time, and this was back in 2020 2021, around that time were the mega universities, the wgs, yeah.
(15:19):The Southern New Hampshire, the University of Maryland, global campuses of the world. So that begged the question, what are students, what are learners looking for? And so I think those are the, the, the, the biggest challenges, particularly that the public face, because it's not just the public college and the university that needs to change. It's the policy makers, it's the funding, the way that they're funded by state leaders. That has to change as well. And sometimes it's attention there. It's not easy to all of a sudden transition and create core capacity in your online programs, which is why we've had the dawn of OPMs and yeah. All this other machinations that now we're fighting over to reign in. But I, I, I think those colleges and universities that have learned to adapt, that have created the core capacity to serve learners outside of their four walls, are succeeding and will continue to be successful.
Amrit Ahluwalia (16:22):A hundred percent. So, you know, let's talk about some of these critical actions then. So you've already, you know, I think teed us up really, really nicely when you think about it from a government level and then from an institutional leadership level. What are some key actions that we need to take to begin to address the obstacles that we're identifying to, I'm gonna say growth, but honestly just maintaining the status quo, right? <Laugh>?
Eloy Oakley (16:46):Well, this is becoming, I mean, this is always access to a good post-secondary experience. It's always been an equity issue, and it's, it's increasing. That's an equity issue, particularly in states like California and New York Florida, Texas. I mean, the widening income gaps continue to confound the economies of this, of these big states and, and of the country. So this is an equity issue. We cannot continue to be a prosperous nation if only a small percentage of Americans have access to post-secondary experience and the kinds of credentials that they'll need in order to meaningfully participate in the economy. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. So we need to recognize that as a country, this is not a, a blue or red issue. This is a, a national security issue. This is a domestic policy issue. The second thing is we need to examine and rethink the culture of the American higher education system.
(17:51):And what I mean by that is we continue to place the greatest value on institutions that reject the greatest number of Americans. And that's become yes. Our value system rather than placing value and, and support behind those institutions that are actually trying to create greater access to more Americans of all backgrounds. So we have a problem with the culture in America about how we think about merit, how we think about our higher education system, and why we continue to value and give attention to those institutions that serve the least number of Americans and serve the wealthiest Americans. So that's a problem because that then that cultural bias confounds policy leaders in states in, in Washington dc it drives attention to all the wrong issues. And it doesn't place a focus on those institutions that are the backbone of you know, skilling the American workforce.
Amrit Ahluwalia (18:55):Absolutely.
Eloy Oakley (18:56):So I think we need, we, we need to realign our value system in order to drive some of the changes that need to happen.
Amrit Ahluwalia (19:04):You know, the thing that always gets me about that, that piece, the prioritizing exclusivity there's a great quote from a, a good friend named Jim b Bral, who was the associate vice provost for continuing at, at Delaware some years ago. He said it, and it stuck with me for years. And basically he said, you know, there's two organizations that pride themselves on, on keeping people out, and it's country clubs and universities <laugh>.
(19:31):And it stuck with me because it, it, it goes to show kind of what we've prioritized. And the scary thing is you think there's some 4,000 accredited post-secondary institutions in the us, give or take mm-hmm. <Affirmative>. And the value there is there should be a rich, incredibly diverse tapestry of higher ed institutions with options available to any individual looking for any learning experience at whatever price point makes sense to them. Cuz there's 4,000 institutions doing it, right. But what we wind up with is 3,500 of them trying to mirror a single model that any really works if you're on the outskirts of Boston. And Right. It worries me because we start to think, well, if the whole point of this ecosystem is that it's incredibly diverse, highly accessible, and highly aligned with the needs of learners, well not if we're all pursuing an exclusivity model at once. So it has, it has been kind of fascinating seeing how that started to shift over the past few years. I think the fa the faster we could make that shift to the better.
Eloy Oakley (20:33): Absolutely. And you know, you just think about, you know, the I did a, a podcast on the recent gift to Harvard and it was about a 300 million gift, a 300 million gift to Harvard that's less than one half of 1% of the total endowment. It's, it made news, national news, but it has such very little impact on one of the wealthiest universities in the country. Think about how that 300 million could have been used to, you know, leverage talent in low income communities across the country and how much more economic value that would've created for, for this country. And, and, you know, I I don't mean to disparage anybody who gives to the Ivys no, but, but we have been cultured to think that if we wanna make an impact and we want our name to be national news, we need to give to those institutions.
Amrit Ahluwalia (22:47):So let me ask you, you know, and I hate to ask you to boil down everything you're seeing into a, into a short, you know, snippet, but when you look at the post-secondary space today, what are the three trends that you think will have the greatest lasting impact on our industry's future?
Eloy Oakley (23:04):Well, first of all, I don't wanna sound trivial or, or sound like everybody else these days, but certainly the use of AI in higher education is going to have a profound impact. Now, I don't think anybody's figured out exactly how that impact is gonna be felt or where it's gonna come from, whether it's from the learners using it, whether it's from faculty institutions using it. But I think it will continue to lead higher education in the direction of being able to more have greater per personalization of a post-secondary experience. So I think that's gonna have a tremendous impact. I mean, we've talked about you know, how the internet, how accessing you know, machine learning is going to cont is going to improve the personalization of higher education. I think the use of generative AI and, and other forms of that technology are just going to continue that drive.
(24:16):I think that enrollment decline is going to seriously cause a questioning and a reckoning of the residential college model. I think that is a model of the past, particularly for private institutions. I think it's gonna be, it's gonna be continued consolidation of the private nonprofit institutions that cannot continue to have a viable business model by continuing to try to increase tuition at the same time, increase the drive for more PE eligible students so that they can pay for that cost. It's just an unsustainable model. And unfortunately, the drive to double the P is coming from some of those institutions to just see doubling the p as their way to maintain their own viability and their business model's success. So that's a trend that's gonna continue to happen. And you know, the final is I think where you see institutions being able to more organically partner with each other.
(25:33):You know, in California we're having this tussle between the community college system and the California State University system over who can offer a baccalaureate degree. Yeah. I think those are arguments of the past. The solution of the future is how can the Cal State system partner with the community college system to offer quality post-secondary experience leading up to a bachelor's degree in every part of the state, regardless of who has a campus there or not. I think those kinds of ideas and that kind of affiliation or partnership, whatever you wanna call it, is gonna be what proves successful, not continuing to fight over territory, who owns what territory, who owns what enrollment. Those are going damn higher education if we continue to go that route.
Amrit Ahluwalia (26:21):Absolutely. It's, it's always a pleasure when we get the chance to chat. And just in closing, as regular listeners will know, I'm on the hunt always for good restaurants. You're based out of Corona del Mar on the southern tip of la where do I need to go for dinner if I'm in your town?
Eloy Oakley (26:37):Well, look, I'm gonna give you sort of a an awkward or a non-traditional suggestion, which is if you've never been to Corona Delmar, the greatest thing about Corona Delmar is crystal Cove is one of our state parks. The, the jewel of the California State Park system bluffs overlooking the ocean. It's beautiful. And there's a Ruby's diner positioned right on the Bluffs, right off Coast Highway. The hamburgers are okay, the fries are okay, but the view is the best at Sunset <laugh>. So there's a huge line at Sunset to get in, but if you can get in and have a hamburger and a shake overlooking the Pacific Ocean when the sun is setting, that is the best experience you can have if you haven't been to this neck of the woods.
Amrit Ahluwalia (27:31):You all know what that is. Awesome. Eloy, it's a pleasure. It's always a pleasure. I so appreciate you.
Eloy Oakley (27:37):No worries. It's great to be on your show and, and thanks for inviting me.
Amrit Ahluwalia (27:41):Absolutely. And, and do listen to the rant if, if you get a chance Absolutely. For another Higher Ed podcast,
Eloy Oakley (27:46):Youtube, or your favorite podcast platform.