10th Anniversary Interview Series with California Competes Alumni


Over a decade ago, California Competes was founded to help transform the state’s higher education system into a vehicle to prosperity for all Californians and their communities. Today, with a great foundation laid by its past leaders and staff over the years, California Competes has ignited change in higher education through its rigorous policy research and by guiding decision makers in advancing policy solutions that enable all Californians to achieve their education and career goals.

To reflect on California Competes’s decade of impact in anticipation of its 10th anniversary celebration on March 1st, Executive Director Dr. Su Jin Gatlin Jez speaks with four past leaders and alumni of the organization including:

  • Mr. Bob Shireman, who was California Competes’s first executive director and held the position until 2015;

  • Dr. Lande Ajose, who served as California Competes’s executive director from 2015 to 2019

  • Ms. Ria Bhatt, who served as deputy director and then interim executive director until 2019; and

  • Dr. Valerie Lundy-Wagner, who led California Competes’s research efforts during her tenure at the organization.

Together, they discussed the importance of higher education coordination and data in policymaking and reflected on the past, present, and future of California Competes.


Dr. JezLet’s kick things off by hearing a little bit about where each of you are today, and how your work at California Competes helped carve your path to your current work and shaped your views on higher education?

Mr. Shireman: I now direct the higher education policy program at the Century Foundation, which works a lot on federal policy and a bit on state policy here and there. I work on a number of different issues, but the one I wanted to kind of pick out as one that started with my work at California Competes is on accreditation. So we did a deep dive at California Competes into how accreditation helps to improve colleges and universities. Are there ways that we could tap accreditation to make it work better? One of the policy reforms that we succeeded in enacting was getting public access to the reports that accreditors provide to campuses about how they think things are going at the campus and what kinds of changes they need to make. The Western accreditor adopted that policy on their own, and then there was a state law that was enacted as well.

A year and a half ago, I was named by the Californian Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, to the federal advisory committee that oversees accreditation. So I’ve been continuing some of that work; some of what I learned and got curious about at California Competes.

Dr. Ajose: I am currently at the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). I joined PPIC a few months back in October of 2021. My role here is as the vice president and senior fellow with management responsibilities for both our higher education and our K–12 research teams. I have the illustrious responsibility of building a new policy area. It’s a new strategic priority for PPIC called Understanding California’s Future, and the goal of that is to really think about what are the policy issues, what are the trends, what does the data say that will help inform the future of the state, and how do we make sure that we are developing policies and ideas to help guide the state in a way in which we would like for it to develop.

I got to this job, having made a stop through the governor’s office where I served as his policy advisor for higher education. I give credit to California Competes—and especially to Bob—for bringing me into California Competes and giving me an opportunity to do a deep dive on a whole variety of issues related to higher education in the state of California. I’ve often said that the reason I joined California Competes is because when I was looking at another job, I called Bob and said “Would you be a reference for me?” and he said “Sure, but while you’re thinking about leaving your job, why don’t you come join me at California Competes, and we will completely transform higher education?” I said “You had me at completely transform.” It’s really a great part of the legacy that California Competes continues to think about the ways in which it can be an independent body that is transforming the various parts of our higher education system to the benefit of students and to push in the most productive ways our legislature, our governor, our higher education segments to do more and to do better by students. So I’m just enormously proud to be an alum. Thank you for that.

Ms. Bhatt: Thanks for having me, and congratulations on your 10 years. I’m pretty sure I got that same speech from Lande when I joined California Competes. So it goes down the line, and I think it’s just a great story about the impact of California Competes, and what a pleasure it is to do that work.

I now have the privilege of serving as Director of Public Policy at College Futures Foundation, which is a state-based foundation focused on eliminating equity gaps and improving pathways for California students to achieve not only a college degree, but most importantly, a better life for themselves and their families, which is the reason why so many of us go to college or aspire to go to college in the first place. So my role as Policy Director is about contributing a state policy lens and movement building lens to the foundation’s work, essentially using policy strategy to help achieve the foundation’s overall goals. It’s an interesting intersection of state policy and philanthropy. There aren’t a lot of people in it but I think it’s very impactful when you have stakeholders who are policymakers, students, advocates, researchers, community leaders. All of these stakeholders who sit maybe outside of positions of power and higher education are necessary to be equity-centered change agents in higher education. So I get the pleasure of working with so many of these different partners. I think that really resonates with how California Competes was conceived and continues to do its work, combining research and advocacy, working with institutions and also those stakeholders outside of institutions who can hold them accountable for serving students well and bringing people together who may not otherwise be interacting with each other for the purposes of greater impact and a better higher education system.

Dr. Lundy-Wagner: I started at California Competes in the middle of a shift in the conversation around students with some college and no degree. I think it really represented a great time for me professionally, because it represented a time where it was clear that there was an appreciation for not just the practice-policy dichotomy that we often talk about, but the practice-data conversation that needed to be talked about if we’re going to reach the equity goals that people have aspired to for some decades. I think we have to acknowledge that in order to get there, we have to look at the data and which populations were lagging behind. As the California Competes team dug into that when I stepped in, it was obvious that we needed to pay attention to adults who were 25 and over, and especially in California, given the open access nature of our community college system, and in particular, that there were plenty of Californians who had some college education, but weren’t able to finish for a myriad of reasons. That begged the questions: what can be done about this, who can do it, who has the authority, the responsibility, and the resources to address that?

During my time, I stayed connected to the world of technical assistance that I had recently come from and also looked to some of the practitioners I had worked with, including at the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office. It is in many ways how I made a transition to work in the system, the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office initially, to help build up the research and data unit after the Great Recession. The agency, which serves 116 colleges, 73 districts, and between 1.8 to 2.1 million students annually, had a research department of one staff person. In order to not only meet our reporting requirements for the agency to the state and legislature, not only to better understand what effectiveness meant as the work of the agency shifted from concepts like guided pathways into what does that really mean on the ground for practitioners, whether they be faculty, staff, or administrator at the local level, the district level, or in the system office, it became clear that we needed more capacity to really build out the thought models and theories of change that would help guide the regulations that needed to be revisited and to talk to advocacy organizations around the priorities of transfer, access, and financial aid access.

So that is really the work I do now, supporting not only building up the research and data unit but also supporting IT operations for the agency. I oversee the educational technology portfolio, which is all of the system in supported technology tools that the system provides to colleges or subsidizes for colleges, and I oversee the management information system as the Vice Chancellor for Digital Innovation and Infrastructure.

When I look at where adults with some college and no degree were, and how we think about how to serve them, it does require a robust team of staff to understand that, particularly in this system since it’s the one most Californians will touch. I feel like it was a natural step to be at California Competes at that time. It certainly set me up well to think about all of the different types of data that exists around this 1.8 to 2.1 million students in our system.

Dr. Jez: Higher education coordination has been a longstanding priority of California Competes, and since leaving California Competes, each of you has held different roles in our higher education ecosystem. I thought we could have a good conversation around how stronger coordination across higher education, and perhaps into adjacent pathways like K–12 or career and workforce, could improve the state’s overall higher education system. What are some ideas or things to keep in mind as the state considers how it could better coordinate higher education?

Dr. Lundy-Wagner: I love coordination. It’s a topic that I think is underappreciated. When we think about the state’s educational attainment, I think about the state’s and the legislature’s commitment to equity and social mobility. It’s easy to say all the segments should work together. I think a more compelling argument is what do we lose when we don’t have coordination. What we lose when we don’t have coordination is students who have opportunities for dual enrollment, but they’re not equitable across the state. What we lose when we don’t have coordination is students in community colleges who have met the minimum qualifications who are admitted, but are not transferring into our California State University or University of California systems or any higher education. In some cases, what we lose is the ability to understand the effectiveness of financial aid and other state services like CalFresh as students move through these different systems, whether they or their families were low-income when they were in K–12, whether they receive some of those supports in the community college or in the four-year system, and how that impacts their outcomes. What we lose is an ability to understand how workforce and economic development activities that are happening in community colleges impact labor market outcomes and social mobility.

I think rather than framing it from like “Let’s all sort of kumbaya” perspective, we really need to ask ourselves what the state loses, and not just in terms of economics, but around people, their communities, and their families when we don’t have this sort of coordination in higher education or with K–12.

Dr. Ajose: I thank you for saying that, Valerie. I actually agree with you very much that there is a lot to be lost by not having coordination. I think what I would add to that is we should be examining what we think coordination really is and what it means to practically have coordination. California Competes has been really at the forefront of the call for some kind of coordinating body. I wrote a report under Bob on various ways to skin that cat when we were at California Competes. I think what I would say—in reflection—is we really thought about the coordination question as a question of only personnel sitting around the table. I think that there are other ways to think about coordination.

I would actually argue that the state longitudinal data system is a form of coordination because it will lead to data being analyzed that will begin to answer some of those very robust questions that Valerie laid out. I think part of the coordination piece is not simply getting only the higher education leaders to think through their systems, but actually beginning with the proposition of what are the answers that we need to have, what are the questions that we have and the answers that we need to know in order to have some compelling reason to ask those people to come together and solve problems. I think that’s one issue.

I would say the second issue is there is a practical difference between wanting a body that very quickly can become theater for people to watch and wanting a body that is effective. I think we learned something from the demise of the California Postsecondary Education Commission (CPEC), both in terms of the structure of CPEC and the ways in which that could be obstructionist when different entities wanted it to be, and what it means for leaders to be in front of constituents and give voice to issues in public that they don’t support in private. What I am most interested in is how do you actually have an effective and a functional group of individuals who are coordinating, what does that look like, and what are the different ways to get there? That is what I feel like I’ve learned, because I think there is a great impulse to be in front of people and to want things to look like they are moving along, but if you don’t have the buy-in within and across the institutions, then you’re not going to actually get anywhere.

Ms. Bhatt: Everything that Valerie and Lande said just really resonates with me. As a metaphor through this pandemic, we’ve really seen the definitions of place and space change for college students and for institutions. We think about it in different and new ways, and so I think the mechanism and the need for coordination will always be there if we really want these opportunities to center the student regardless of where in the system they’re at, but there are opportunities to rethink how that may be structured, where some of those goals align, and what are the mechanisms to be able to get there that may not require a full on body, but it does require some sort of alignment and knowledge and acknowledgement that these issues are too big for any one entity or stakeholders to solve on their own.

Mr. Shireman: I’ll just add that some of the examples that we’ve just heard about around the data system are opportunities to build on and turn them into a next task for the group to take on or to add on. Maybe that’ll address some of the fears that people have about creating an entity, and it might take away their power instead of it being task-specific. Then over time, maybe it can take on more of the responsibilities that Valerie identified. I think those gaps—that list of all of the kinds of gaps that we are not filling because no one is responsible for looking across the entire population and all geographies, and who’s being addressed and who’s not—we need to figure out a way to get at that. The way things are currently structured, those are not seen and so they don’t get addressed.

Dr. Jez: To follow up on the discussion of the development of the Cradle-to-Career Data System, which is something that all of you worked on to help bring to fruition during your time at California Competes, what are some of the things that you would like to see those leading the development of this data system keep in mind as they move forward?

Ms. Bhatt: I’ll just reinforce what we just talked about regarding the in-between spaces like high school to college, dual enrollment, transfer to four-year, or higher education to workforce, which is an area California Competes has worked on for so many years. Those are kind of the critical spaces where we just have gaps in knowledge, understanding of the trends, and that impacts policy design. It impacts policy implementation. We have very limited capacity right now to be evidence-based in California education policy. I share the hope of many in the field that this data system can alleviate and change that and really create an infrastructure for evidence-based policy design and implementation.

Dr. Ajose: I remember Bob saying when we were first starting to talk about the data system that if we had this data system, we wouldn’t actually need to have a California Competes. We could work ourselves out of a job. You guys might not want to know that now because the data system is about to come.

When California Competes was started, part of what Bob had the vision around and what we did was to actually provide answers to some of those gaps, right? Because there was no one out there that was doing that, and part of the value proposition was that the state should be doing this, not us. I mean, we’re smart. We can do it, but actually it should be a responsibility of the state. I think it is a huge win that the state is going to have some mechanism for being able to do that.

When we came out with The Road Ahead report, I remember we had a data point in there, like we were losing something like 800,000 students of 2.3 million [needed to meet workforce demand], simply because they weren’t making the transition between K–12 and college. Nobody had that data. The state ought to have that data, but the state doesn’t have that data right now. So, things like the data system are actually really important. I would agree with Bob that it might be a lever for being able to tee up what are the right questions? Then, where do you need those systems to begin to come together to answer those questions rather than just only starting from the place of, we need the structure without any impetus for what the structure might do.

Dr. Lundy-Wagner: So far, we’ve seen lots and lots of interest, which is amazing for all the researchers out there, but I think it also shows how there are lots of different questions and understanding of what is most relevant to state-level policymaking, system-level policymaking institution-level policymaking in the community colleges, district-level policymaking, classroom-level policymaking, and how these institutions engage with other state agencies like CSAC or CDSS. I think that is the part that can be difficult because lots of people want to know lots of things.

We’ve seen a very intentional planning process associated with the Cradle-to-Career Data System. My hope is that it really allows us to bite it off small chunks of what can and should be done with the data system to move the conversation forward, not to overwhelm us with all that we don’t know, but to help us really start uncovering things in an intentional way that help advance policy in the way Ria just noted.

Dr. Jez: Looking ahead now, where do you see California Competes really moving the needle in higher education and workforce policy?

Mr. Shireman: I think the connection to workforce, and not just the workforce, but also the workforce training systems that exist separate from the higher education system but really should be thought of as part of that entire ecosystem. I think building that connection is going to be where California Competes can make the biggest change, and I am looking forward to it.

Dr. Ajose: I would echo something Valerie already said but I would say that focus on that some college no degree population, the folks who are over the age of 25 and who have made efforts to get a degree but have not been successful and have not completed, and thinking about that group as an organizing principle, because that is actually more typical of many of our California college students. What we need to do to reform systems, segments and processes to actually serve those students in a better way is a huge contribution that California Competes can make—by really thinking about what are the policies, interventions, and practices that our colleges and universities can take up that actually help those students to be successful.

That could be financial aid policy and what it means to actually support those students in a much more robust way. It can be things like understanding how to honor the work that they’ve done prior to coming back to school and thinking about credit for them. It could be other things like ways to do dual enrollment for some of those students. I think that thinking about that population, because it is not going to be a shrinking population. Some might argue that in light of the pandemic and in light of the Great Resignation that we actually may end up seeing more students—even though we’re in a dip right now in the community college student system—turning to our community colleges and to our higher education systems for retraining to get back to a new place with their career aspirations. Really thinking about how we serve those populations in the best possible way is something that I think California Competes can contribute to.

Ms. Bhatt: I also think that centering that student population which is growing as we speak, given all of the challenges happening during the pandemic, also anchors your work on data and your work on coordination because you need all of those pieces to really be able to support that population of some college, no degree as well as a connection to workforce and employers and helping those two very large fields speak to each other. All of those will be required for California to really serve the some college population well. It really ties together all your strategies, and I just look forward to seeing what you all do with it.

Dr. Lundy-Wagner: How we think about workforce, especially following up on the investments the state made with the California Career Pathways Trust, an unprecedented investment in K–12 but also career and technical education overall, and understanding what we learn from that, part of that is being learned with the creation of the Cradle-to-Career Data System. But as we go through this pandemic, as we see folks losing steam around higher education, as we see economic inequality get exacerbated by the pandemic, it behooves all of us to really understand how we take that some college and no degree population and think about how does that population fare around transfer? How does it fare around dual enrollment models and strategies often called back-on-track models? There are models that exist that just haven’t scaled, and we really need to ask ourselves why that hasn’t happened. California Competes, given the role that it plays between higher education, workforce, and economic development; the future is bright with California Competes being here.

Dr. Ajose: One other thing I would just say is a distinguishing factor for California Competes relative to other organizations is its nonpartisan approach. The idea that California Competes is thinking about both students and the institutions, about outcomes and processes, about how do you engage nonprofits and businesses, that is a distinguishing factor. I don’t think that every peer institution to California Competes approaches it that way. I think there is something to be said for understanding that the sets of issues related to higher education or workforce that California Competes takes up actually are bipartisan, and there is an opportunity to forge a solution that encompasses a lot of different perspectives. It is actually pretty insightful and not something that everyone is doing. I would certainly urge California Competes to continue in that realm because I think it allows the organization to have a different type of credibility around these issues than maybe some other organizations do.

Dr. Jez: Well, thank you so much for that and all of the responses today. We are grateful to our fabulous California Competes alumni for all your hard work over the past 10 years during your time in California Competes, igniting change in higher education, and your continued efforts to do so in your new roles. I wish we could have done this in person, but I also look forward to seeing you all at our celebration on March 1st. Thank you all so much for joining me today, for your hard work, and for being this great organization that I got to jump into.

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