Crisis Underscores Need for Coordination in Higher Education

by Ilaf Esuf

Policy and Research Analyst


Topics: Accountability, Bachelor's Degrees, Community Colleges, Degree Attainment, Employment, Four-Year Colleges, Sub-Baccalaureate Degrees, State Coordination, Ed Equity, Adults, COVID-19, Workforce


Like the higher education systems in many states, California’s higher education system must quickly shift to serve students through this pandemic. However, effectively serving students requires the state’s fragmented higher education segments to come together. Dr. Lande Ajose, senior policy advisor for higher education to Governor Gavin Newsom, and Peter Taylor, president of the ECMC Foundation and California State University (CSU) trustee, shed light on this issue during the Postsecondary to Prosperity webinar, which featured a discussion on how the state must respond during these uncertain times.

Both higher education leaders agree that building pathways is critical to improving higher education equity. Dr. Ajose shared that the governor’s administration has been thinking about how to “bring together our higher education systems to be increasingly coordinated around thinking about the pathways for students from K–12 to higher education and oftentimes from the community college system to our four-year systems.” Mr. Taylor honed in on the community college to four-year university bridge. “If I could wave a magic wand and fix one thing in the state of California, it would be to improve transfer pathways,” he shared. “We’ve made a lot of progress there . . . but the process is too opaque and difficult to navigate for the community college student.”

If I could wave a magic wand and fix one thing in the state of California, it would be to improve transfer pathways.

Peter J. Taylor

As one of two states without a higher education coordinating entity1, the siloed structure of California's higher education system makes building clear pathways to and through higher education difficult—a feat that has become even more challenging with the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, as colleges rapidly adapted to keep students, faculty, and staff safe during the pandemic, many community colleges provided students flexibility to complete Spring 2020 courses as credit/no credit instead of a letter grade. However, it was unclear if the CSU and the University of California would accept these courses for transfer. Without a statewide entity that could lead rapid changes, many students and colleges navigated this crisis on their own.

These challenges also exacerbated existing inequities. Even before the COVID-19 crisis, opportunities for Californians varied by race, gender, and region. Only 15 percent of Latinx students across California hold a bachelor’s degree compared to 61 percent of Asian students. Bay Area residents are more likely to have a bachelor's degree (52%) than residents of any other region, while only 17 percent of San Joaquin residents hold a four-year degree2.

To address these disparities, Dr. Ajose pointed out the importance of bringing an equity lens to the work, noting that having an equity lens “means understanding not every student needs the same things. We need to tailor programs and services to the actual needs of students when they get to our front doors in higher education and understand it’s going to take different levels of resources for different students to be able to thrive in higher education. That’s our responsibility, it’s our moral imperative, and it’s also good for our state’s economic well-being.”

We need to tailor programs and services to the actual needs of students when they get to our front doors in higher education and understand it’s going to take different levels of resources for different students to be able to thrive in higher education.

Dr. Lande Ajose

However, tailoring programs across segments is challenging. Mr. Taylor drew upon his own experience as a CSU trustee in Janet Napolitano’s task force focused on improving access and success for Black students within the UC system. “There was no way to think about how to get the systems together to come up with a joint strategy around a specific goal like that. That’s one of the things a coordinating council could do,” he shared. An independent higher education coordinating entity with the ability to create change across systems could elevate success for all students across all systems.

Governor Newsom has also convened formal and informal advisors on higher education coordination through the creation of the Council for Post-secondary Education and task forces that include improving higher education coordination and responsiveness, such as the Future of Work Commission. The Council brings together leaders from K-12 and higher education, business, and labor, allowing system leaders to strengthen relationships, launch conversations, and advise the governor on shared higher education priorities and goals.

However, relationship building between segments does not change the rules of the game that put institutional interests above other priorities. An independent higher education coordinating entity could lead with the needs of students and the state as opposed to the concerns of individual segments. Mr. Taylor hones in on this as he compares his experiences in the C-suite of the University of California and as a CSU trustee. “When I was chief financial officer for UC, I wasn’t too crazy about (coordination),” Mr. Taylor shared. “Now that I’m a trustee of CSU, I see real value in somebody having an objective view about how higher education can meet the state’s needs separate and apart from the systems themselves.”

Now that I’m a trustee of CSU, I see real value in somebody having an objective view about how higher education can meet the state’s needs separate and apart from the systems themselves.

Peter J. Taylor

The creation of an independent higher education coordinating entity has been called for by many researchers and advocates. Mr. Taylor’s and Dr. Ajose’s comments on the need to improve students’ transitions to and through postsecondary education, and the acknowledgement of a system that struggles to serve students of color, first-generation students, and low-income students well (especially through the COVID-19 pandemic), highlight how crucial it is for California to act today to ensure a bright tomorrow.

We need to ensure we have a unified, cohesive, and coherent vision for what higher education ought to be and ought to look like.

Dr. Lande Ajose

Dr. Ajose shared that “at some point, whether that’s in 12 months or 36 months, we are going to recover from this pandemic. We’re going to recover from the twin crises of the pandemic and the economic recession and that’s before you even layer into that, the huge racial reckoning we’re undergoing as a society. And when we recover from that, we need to ensure we have a unified, cohesive, and coherent vision for what higher education ought to be and ought to look like.” But the question remains, with the absence of a coordinating entity, who will lead that charge of implementing a unified vision?

While the Governor created the Council to address the state’s need for a coordinating body, California needs an independent entity. An independent, transparent higher education coordinating entity, tasked to analyze higher education and its connection to K–12 and the economy, would be designed to spot and rectify pain points with equity and prosperity for California as its North Star. Having a bird’s-eye view could strengthen and connect fragmented systems to ensure student success from start to finish. Such an entity would develop data-driven strategies to serve the needs of the state as opposed to those of individual systems and would hold respective segments accountable. The state needs a system that will put students' needs first.

1California Competes. (2019, March 19). The case for a statewide higher education coordinating entity. https://californiacompetes.org/publications/the-case-for-a-statewide-higher-education-coordinating-entity

2California Competes (2020, August). California postsecondary to prosperity dashboard. https://californiacompetes.org/index.php?p=p2p