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By Lande Ajose and Monica Lozano, Special to CALmatters

As voters weigh the issues on Tuesday’s ballot, higher education in California should rank high on the list.

No system is more connected to economic opportunity and mobility than higher education. That’s why the next lieutenant governor can be so important to our state’s 2 million students, their families and the millions of Californians for whom college is only a dream.

The lieutenant governor serves as a University of California regent, a trustee of the California State University, and the chair of the Commission for Economic Development. She or he will be well-positioned to deeply influence higher education policy and workforce outcomes at a time when California needs it most.

Our new lieutenant governor must be prepared to tackle interconnected higher education issues that are essential to student success and the future of our state including access, equity, affordability, institutional capacity, and workforce connections.

Working in concert with UC, the CSU, and the California Community Colleges, he or she must develop policies to build seamless pathways for students on the journey to graduation. Degrees enable our students to realize their aspirations of individual prosperity, build vibrant communities, and benefit all Californians through their collective success.

Our next lieutenant governor will have an obligation to balance stark differences in access to education and economic mobility based on race, ethnicity, and gender. The majority of California’s K-12 students are of color and low-income. They face numerous barriers to attaining bachelor’s degrees and comprise a small proportion of public university graduates.

That must change, and the lieutenant governor can help.

The candidates for lieutenant governor, state Sen. Ed Hernandez and former U.S. Ambassador to Hungary Eleni Kounalakis, spoke to these issues and others at a forum recently co-hosted by California Competes and College Futures Foundation. You can watch the event by clicking here. While each candidate would have a different approach, the discussion underscored that our next lieutenant governor has a direct line of sight to charting a better course for our students and our state.

A report from College Futures Foundation reveals that 32 percent of white Californians ages 25-34 have a bachelor’s degree compared to only 11 percent for underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. To reach parity in bachelor’s degree attainment, California will need to triple bachelor’s degree attainment rates among underrepresented groups.

The latest research from California Competes shows that improvements in high school graduation and college enrollment are not translating into improvements in college completion.

To maintain our strong economic standing, at least 55 percent of adults will need a postsecondary degree or credential. But the reality is that by 2025, we will have a gap of more than 2 million college degrees and sub-baccalaureate credentials.

Our elected leaders must work to close this gap with a focus on equitable outcomes. Our richly diverse student body deserves nothing less.

As students grapple with mounting costs, we must work to make college more affordable. Students and their families need relief from a wild ride in which tuition increases or is held steady in accordance with the economy’s boom-bust cycle.

High housing and transportation costs increasingly make on-time college completion the exception. Extra years spent getting degrees add costs to students, their families, and the state, and limits our capacity to educate Californians who are waiting in line at the colleges’ doors.

A starting place would be to increase collaboration across our institutions of higher education and opening the lines of communication and data sharing.

Students must be able to navigate our K-12 system, the California Community Colleges, the California State University, and the University of California from beginning to a college degree.

To better understand their journey, we need a comprehensive data system to shed light on students’ cumulative experience, so our state leaders can be responsive to their needs.

Higher education is the great equalizer of income inequality.

The power to reset the crown jewel that is California’s system of higher education is within the control of our governor, lieutenant governor and the Legislature working with our public college and university leaders. And it is with you, the voters, who will go to the polls knowing higher education is the great equalizer of income inequality, and that now is the time to design a ladder of mobility for all Californians.

Lande Ajose is executive director of California Competes: Higher Education for a Strong Economy, [email protected]. Monica Lozano is president and chief executive of College Futures Foundation,  [email protected]. They wrote this commentary for CALmatters.