Insights & News

Grantee Spotlight: Q&A with Lande Ajose, Executive Director of California Competes


College Futures Foundation provides support to a number of policy groups that are focused on improving college opportunity and outcomes for low-income and underrepresented students in California. Our grantee partner California Competes is committed to making the education-to-employment pipeline work for more Californians. We spoke with executive director Lande Ajose about the biggest issues facing the state’s higher education system.


What is the biggest issue facing California’s higher education system?

The biggest problem California faces in higher education is the misalignment between state degree production, the needs of our economy, and the equitable education of our residents. We have known for some time that California has a looming degree and credential gap of more than 2 million with no statewide plan to address it. That’s a threat to both our residents and our economy. The unprecedented economic expansion we have seen since the great recession won’t last forever. It is critical that we prepare students to succeed in good economic times and provide them with the tools they need to withstand an economic slump, whenever that occurs.

Many initiatives and policies focused on improving higher education outcomes and closing equity gaps have recently been launched in California—and 2018 is an election year. What conversations should our leaders and the public be having right now?

There is a lot to talk about. First, we need to build coordination across higher education. Policy advocates agree that California desperately needs a statewide coordinating entity to smooth student pathways and align goals to support degree completion. Many people might be surprised to learn California is one of only two states without such coordination.

 We also need to improve degree completion by developing re-entry points for the 4.5 million Californians aged 25-64 who have attended some college but left before finishing their degree.

Addressing the college completion challenge is critical as those without a college degree are increasingly shut out of occupations with high projected growth.

The public should be asking why there isn’t more transparency in higher education. A statewide comprehensive data system will provide essential information for sound policymaking. To serve them effectively, we must know how our students move through all of California’s education systems (P-20) and where they land in the workforce.

Beyond tuition, basic needs keep many students in California from finishing college. According to the UC and CSU systems, 40 percent of their students are food insecure. High housing prices throughout California impact students’ abilities to complete their degrees. Any plan to address college affordability needs to incorporate these significant non-tuition costs.

One of your recent reports states that income disparity is one of the largest problems facing our state and ties it to inequities in college success rates. (See Opportunity Imbalance: Race, Gender, and California’s Education-to-Employment Pipeline.) What do you hope people better understand from this piece? What might people be most surprised to learn?

 First and foremost, we need to be super clear about the makeup of California’s population and understand what that portends for the current and future workforce. Forty percent of this state is Latino, and that is one place where we’ve see the poorest higher education outcomes. That explains much of the focus of our research this year. Beyond showing that these challenges persist, our research tells richer, nuanced stories about the imbalance of opportunity in California.

Blacks and Latinos lag in education outcomes and face systemic barriers once they enter the workforce. While Latino Californians have experienced progress in educational outcomes, they continue to earn persistently lower wages. In fact, they earn the lowest median wages of all ethnic groups. For Black Californians, there are stark gender differences in high school and college outcomes, with Black women having much stronger educational outcomes than Black men.

Policymakers must address these inequities in California’s education-to-employment pipeline and develop policies that advance Californians on the path to economic and social mobility.

 What work is California Competes doing now that most excites you?

The mission of California Competes speaks to me in many ways, because I truly believe that higher education is the key to prosperity and freedom for individuals and a key driver of our success as a state.

If you care about the state’s economy, you must care about the people who fuel that economy. That is why we have an explicit focus on educational equity.

This year we’ve executed a robust research agenda to elevate these issues for the legislature, gubernatorial candidates, and other potential public servants. I’m excited to see what the next several months will bring as we get closer to election day.

What gives you hope? Where do you see progress or momentum?

I’m thrilled that higher education has emerged as an important part of the gubernatorial candidates’ platforms as we continue elevate this issue along with partners like the Campaign for College Opportunity and Ed Trust-West. We now know that our next governor understands that organizations like ours will be engaged and expecting the new administration to keep higher education on the front burner. I am optimistic that our next governor will be a “higher education governor,” and I’m very hopeful that this new leadership will have a transformative impact on our students.