10th Anniversary Interview Series: Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis


*Recorded on September 22, 2021 prior to Governor’s deadline to sign or veto bills advanced to his desk by the Legislature

Earlier this month, California passed a historic $47.1 billion higher education package that would address equity gaps and access issues for students across the state’s postsecondary ecosystem. This comes at a pivotal juncture where communities are looking to make their rebound from the disruptions of the pandemic and demonstrates the state’s recognition that equity-minded solutions in higher education are needed to better serve its students, residents, and overall economy.

For California Competes’s 10th anniversary interview series, Executive Director Dr. Su Jin Gatlin Jez speaks with Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis, the ex officio elected official that serves on the boards of all three public higher education segments in the state in addition to chairing the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors. A daughter of immigrants, Lt. Gov. Kounalakis discusses the importance of broadening pathways for underserved communities such as first-generation students and those from immigrant backgrounds as well as building out system capacity through online education. She highlights two bills that she cosponsored and were part of the wave of proposals ushered through the ambitious higher education package. Both measures aim to streamline processes within the state’s community college system and increase accessibility for many.

Read further to learn more about Lt. Gov. Kounalakis’s background and how it shapes her priorities for higher education that will pave the way for an inclusive recovery, a more resilient economy, and a state that better serves all its residents.

Dr. Jez: Everyone has their journey. Will you tell us about your journey to becoming lieutenant governor, and how has your lived experience shaped how you view higher education and workforce policy?

Lt. Gov. Kounalakis: I often talk about my passion for public higher education in the state of California, and it really does come from a very personal part of my life and my story. My grandmother back in Greece never went to school for a single day. She never learned to read [or] write, but she believed in the promise of America and let my father leave home alone to come to the United States. He ended up in California at 15 years old, working in the fields as a farm worker and going to high school. Eventually, he made his way to Sacramento and went to Sacramento State University. He didn’t quite graduate — I was the first in my family to go to a four year university and graduate– but he got an extraordinary education [while there]. For me [and] all of us in our family, we always recognized that the real change in the trajectory of opportunity– not just for my father who went on to build a successful business, but for all of us — was his ability to go to Sacramento State.

California public higher education has been instrumental in my own story as I went on to do the things you talked about and have incredible opportunities, but it really all started from that opportunity for him to go from the fields to the classroom. This pathway of the California Dream for millions of Californians goes through the halls of public higher education in our state. Part of the reason I ran for [Lieutenant Governor] and really what I’ve been able to roll up my sleeves and immerse myself in is how to make the opportunities that our family has had available for future generations. As we know, it works pretty well, but there’s still a lot more that we can do.

Dr. Jez: California Competes had the privilege of speaking with you back in 2018 when you were running for lieutenant governor when we hosted the lieutenant governor’s forum. During that time, you had noted affordability, capacity issues, and education-to-workforce as challenges and the main priorities going into the role. So now that you’re the incumbent lieutenant governor, can you talk about how you see California’s efforts around those priorities, the progress that we’ve made, and the things that you think really need to be further tackled?

Lt. Gov. Kounalakis: We’ve been making progress on these very issues of affordability, accessibility, and representation, but we still have a lot of work to be done. AB 705 was a very important starting point, along with the associate’s degree for transfer. Being able to recognize that the community college system is a critically important part of what happens in public higher education in our state [and] making sure that our students are prepared to transfer from the community college system is key to hitting those goals. Yes, we have students who can come directly out of our high schools into the UC and the CSU, and that’s really great, but if we’re really looking at accessibility, affordability, and improving representation, the key to all of that is the community college system. The associate’s degree for transfer, the AB 705 reforms, and some of the reforms that we’re working on right now are really getting to this fundamental issue, which is– when we look at our students and the entirety of their educational careers in higher education, how are we starting as early as we need to help develop those pathways, and once they’re in the four year universities of the CSU and the UC, how can we really do more to get those graduation rates up, so that students do not spend more time in the system than they need to?

Dr. Jez: We never envisioned that we would soon be upon a global pandemic that would have devastating impacts across the board. Can you talk a little bit about how your priorities have shifted, how you’re working to navigate the pandemic, and what you hope it will all look like as a state after?

Lt. Gov. Kounalakis: This pandemic has been extremely disruptive in almost every aspect of our lives, and for our students, it’s been extremely difficult. Many of our students in public higher education sacrificed a lot–it’s very expensive for them, and their family, to be able to attend. Somewhere between 30-40% of our students enrolled in public higher education in the state are the first in their family to go to college, and about 70% of the students at the CSU level reported that they would have some level of challenges in their funding sources in terms of being able to continue. So, this has been a difficult time in terms of how families have had to change their lives, whether they’re having financial challenges, very real health challenges, particularly in underserved communities where the virus has been more devastating, and this whole transition to online learning which has changed everything. But as much as the disruption of COVID has caused for an immediate and robust response, especially around this transition to online learning, it also has created some very interesting opportunities for us to see how the protocols that we have had to utilize during COVID can actually help us to expand access. We know there are some opportunities to use what we’ve learned about online education to help grow capacity in our system.

One statistic I think is really telling is in the CSU system. Before the pandemic, about 95% of the courses were taught in person. Right now, as students are entering the classroom again, about 80% are taught in the classroom and about 20% are continuing online. That’s really interesting because we could have debated for years over the question of if a student were to have a portion of their courses online, what would be the right percentage, but here we are –going from 95% to 80% in-person, and from 5% to 20% online. It’s just happening. This is the most interesting area for us to continue to explore. Then, there’s also what we have learned about the impact of being able to do some of your work remotely on the cost of public higher education for our students. If you can do a semester remotely, does that help you stay in school during a semester where you might not be able to afford the costs associated with being on campus versus being at home. All of this is giving us enormous amounts of data and information to be able to think about using these modifications as future tools.

Dr. Jez: At California Competes, online education is one of our priorities, and that’s exactly what we are hoping for. There seems to be a real potential for us to be able to improve access, improve capacity, and serve a population of California that hasn’t been well served because they can’t get to a campus. We’re excited to see where this goes and hope the state will be really intentional in thinking through these models and the cost for online versus in person, and what should be delivered and for whom. We had a recent study that came out around California demand for higher education. We saw that 19% of Californians [age] 25 years and older said they intend to go to college in the next two years, which is 5.1 million adults. Three million of them said they prefer exclusively online. We were surprised by the data but hopeful that with the pandemic, our institutions would be better prepared to serve Californians that want and need to access postsecondary education.

One thing that I’m really excited about speaking with you is your role on the UC Regents, the CSU Board of Trustees, and the Community College Board of Governors. There’s no one else that has that viewpoint across our three public higher education segments. I would love to hear from you about what it is like to have that position, looking across public higher education in California, and what are the things that strike you as you’re at these tables?

Lt. Gov. Kounalakis: It was really important to me and to our team to be able to engage at all levels. The community college system is just such a critical part of the whole story of public higher education and the master plan for higher education for the state. So we went to the leadership in the legislature, worked with the governor’s office, and made this argument that there should be one ex officio member who serves on all three [segments] to be able to begin to bring the perspective of serving on all three systems to each of those other systems.

When we talk about public higher education in the state, the community college system is the biggest by far in terms of the number of students. It is somewhere around two million students currently enrolled in the community college system. The areas of opportunity for reforming that system, some that have already taken place, and others that are sitting on the governor’s desk right now are really central, [such as] AB 705 and the associate’s degree for transfer that really started looking at what’s going on in our community colleges and how we get them into four year institutions. What we found with AB 705 is the vast majority of students who were coming into the community college system and taking entry level math and English were taking courses that did not get them course credit. It was remedial education, and it was something around 20% of the students were enrolled in math classes at the community colleges that did not get them college credit. So what AB 705 did was it said no matter what [students] test into, if they want to enroll in a class that gives them college credit, let them do it. So, now students enrolling in these courses [are] getting additional help and resources, and we’re finding that now 70% (from 20%) of students enrolled in math classes in our community college system are getting four credit classes with similar numbers, not quite as dramatic, for English. This is huge. California Competes and other NGOs and think tanks out there really saw this as a big problem, and that one change has opened the doors for so many more students.

That’s being followed up with two bills that I’m very proud to have co-sponsored. One of them is AB 1111, common course numbering to make it so that if you take an algebra class at one community college, it has the same number at another community college. And then there is AB 928, which is an additional level of streamlining for the process to go from community college into the CSU and the UC. Instead of a student coming in and opting in to an associate’s degree for transfer (an ADT pathway), they’re automatically opted in and if they want, they can opt out instead of the other way around. All of this to try to make it an easier and more user-friendly system for students. The reason why this is important is because the percentage of students who say that they want to go off to a four-year university and the ones who actually make it is far too low. The students who are at our CSU system right– only one out of every four freshmen graduate within four years. So, this space between high school and graduation from a CSU or UC can really hinge on the community college system, and not just in terms of preparation, but really also in terms of affordability and accessibility.

Dr. Jez: You chair the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisers, and one thing that California Competes has been focused on is the connection between higher education, workforce, and the economy. Can you talk a little bit about the state’s initiatives to increase coordination in higher education and connections between the education-to- employment continuum?

Lt. Gov. Kounalakis: Absolutely. The governor has been really focused on this question. You remember Governor Newsom was lieutenant governor for eight years and sat on the CSU and UC boards. I’ve seen interviews that you guys have done with him in the past. This has been very central to his policy work, and so it’s no surprise that all of this becomes a priority for him as governor.

I am one person who is passionate and very interested in doing more for the system in general, but there are a lot of people who recognize what is critical to California’s economy is our system of public higher education and workforce training. So the way I see it, when I draw the lens back, it’s a formula. It’s a formula that has worked for my family and has been working for California for a long time. The formula starts with immigration. We are 27% foreign born in the state of California. The national average is about 14%. We have the largest system of public higher education in the country–the CSU, the UC, and the community college system. Of our 40 million people, almost three million are enrolled in one of our systems. We are the fifth largest economy in the world. So immigration plus public higher education, and education in general, equals a booming, thriving innovative economy with incredible diversity. So, that is the big picture.

When you start drilling down, I think what’s really important right now is to see it through the prism of priorities of this year’s budget. It was a shock to everyone that, with COVID hitting, we ended up with one of the biggest budget surpluses at any time in history anywhere in the country– $75 billion budget surplus. When you look at what the priorities of that budget were for Governor Newsom and for the legislature, what you’re asking about is very central to that: education, fully funding the CSU, UC, and community college budgets, funding a transitional year of preschool for California kids, which we know there is a correlation between kindergarten and going to college, and looking at other ways to prioritize workforce development. There’s more than a billion dollars that’s been allocated in this budget for various programs around workforce development and not surprisingly, our community college system has received additional funding, as well. Now, a lot of the challenges to the workforce were happening even before COVID. We have known that automation is changing the profile and what kinds of jobs there will be in the future.

There was this much touted study from the PPIC saying that we would need a million more degrees in order to fill the kinds of jobs that will exist in California. We have our work cut out for us, but we also know that students sign up for courses that are directly related to the jobs that they seek to get. Being able to make sure that we have enough offerings to really target and fund those programs that students are waiting in line the longest to get is my biggest hope of what the expanded budgets are going to be able to bring [in addition to the] local partnerships very important for the community colleges and the kinds of partnerships that will lead to internships and apprenticeships.

Dr. Jez: You brought up the surprising robust revenues for the state this year. I wanted to elevate that and the recent census data around poverty in California with the state having the highest poverty rate in the country. How is the state working to close the gap and ensure equitable educational outcomes, particularly for Californians who are currently living in poverty that we need to create that better path for?

Lt. Gov. Kounalakis: It was heartbreaking to see that. I think it kind of sent a shutter across the state, but at the same time, people who are in elected office, in public service, working in nonprofit organizations and local government, we know that families struggle and suffer. We know that that is very largely driven by the cost of living in our state, and the cost of living is very largely driven by the cost of housing in our state. In general, we simply need to build more housing. The governor has signed three very important housing bills. Those will largely go to infill type development which will help, but we really need to build more housing. We need to look at housing with increasing urgency on our campuses of public higher education. If the market rate housing in the areas goes through the roof, it’s not like it used to be where you can get an apartment with a bunch of other students, and it would be affordable. It just isn’t like that anymore. So, we need to build more campus housing. That’s critical and one of the things that I’m really advocating for. It’s approving these projects and moving them forward in a streamlined way to get this housing built.

Some of the basic issues of affordability for higher education have to do with scholarships, Pell Grants, Cal Grants, and tuition rates as well as cost of living. So, the federal stimulus has included expansion of Pell grants in the state of California. We’re working very hard to expand access to Cal Grant opportunities, and we’ve done that with this budget. There is this ongoing fight around tuition increases. I said, when I ran, that I would throw myself into this fight to make public higher education more affordable and to fight tuition increases. We have not had any tuition increases since I came into office, however, you saw that the cohort based tuition process [at the UC] going forward, which includes some automatic cost of living increases. There are some good things that did come out of the cohort based tuition debate at the Regents like some things that have made it more sensitive to the needs of middle class students. With the state of California being so expensive, the dollar just does not go as far. So, this conversation is definitely going to continue.

Dr. Jez: The housing issue is just so fundamental, and we were excited to also see that the college housing program is going forward. I remember, when I was an undergrad at Berkeley 20 years ago, the most stressful thing then was finding housing, and that was not the housing market as today. So I’m particularly excited that you are advising the governor on his Council of Economic Advisers with expertise in housing.

Lt. Gov. Kounalakis: When I was running for lieutenant governor, I went to all 58 counties, and one of my most memorable moments was when I was up in Mariposa County, and there was this lovely grandmother. She was telling me about her grandson, and she was so proud of him. He was a student at UC Berkeley, and he was about to graduate. She told me that for the last year and a half, he had been living in his car. It’s absolutely clear that her grandson did not come from a family that was food insecure or housing insecure, and yet for him to go off to a UC, he suddenly entered the ranks of those who are food and housing insecure. That’s why this budget has $2 billion allocated to build more housing on our campuses, half of it is for the community college system to have housing opportunities on those campuses. This is a sea change. My message is don’t make it more expensive by people filing nimby lawsuits, and using CEQA to drag it out. It doesn’t get us any more housing, but it drives up the cost, and that $2 billion just doesn’t go as far. So that is what I really want to and will focus on over the next couple of years.

Dr. Jez: I appreciate that and I’m glad that that is at the top of your priorities. So looking ahead, what else are your most important priorities for the next year?

Lt. Gov. Kounalakis: What’s been really great is we have a very open door, now, virtually open door policy with students. We hear from students, and we hear the stories on a one by one basis. We get to think of each one of those stories as a challenge to figure out how from the bigger policy side, we can help that. So that’s why with something like common course numbering, which isn’t going to gain any headlines [or] be thought of as some big revolutionary change, we know that it’s going to help.

I will say that the one thing that we will be looking at is capacity. If we want to get to affordability and if we want to get to our goals around equity and diversity, we really have to build more capacity in the system. As we get better at getting students through the associate’s degree for transfer programs through our 115 community colleges and helping them navigate their way through quickly and efficiently, we’re going to end up needing a lot more spaces. Remember, there are guarantees in that ADT program that there will be space for [students] in the CSU and the UC. So, we’re going to have to build capacity within the CSU and the UC. It goes back to the very first thing we were talking about, which is are there things that we have learned to be able to utilize modern technology [and] not replace the classroom?

I have two sons who are in college right now, and there is no question that in-person learning is critically important to their development, not just in learning and the brain being able to really absorb by being in a classroom with their educators, but also what they learn from the other kids around them. There’s no substitute for it, but at the same time, what can we do with the tools and what we’ve learned during this time to build capacity for far greater numbers of students without necessarily having to match it with the bricks and mortar for every piece of that expansion?

Dr. Jez: It’s so critical. As I mentioned, 5.1 million Californians say they want to go [to college]. If the America’s College Promise Act plan passes, California is a big winner, and we’ll have more community college students that will have the benefit of the ADT and the common course numbering.

Lt. Gov. Kounalakis: There’s just so much to be proud of. I really miss being on campus with students, and I really look forward to being able to do that again. It is just so incredibly inspiring. It just so happens today, the cast of Hamilton has made its way through the Capitol. To me, if you were to tell the inspiring story of our state, it really is immigration plus education. So maybe someday, someone will make a musical about California public higher education, because it’s a pretty beautiful story.

Dr. Jez: Lin Manuel Miranda, if you’re listening. Well, thank you so much for spending this time with us, we will look forward to seeing what’s next.

Lieutenant Governor Kounalakis: Thank you so much, Dr. Jez. It’s wonderful to be with you.

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