Different backgrounds, similar visions: Lt. Gov candidates on higher ed

For voters who have trouble distinguishing between the political positions of lieutenant governor candidates Eleni Kounalakis and Ed Hernandez—or remembering what the so-called “Lite Gov” does, anyway—their personal backgrounds provide an obvious contrast.

Although both are the first in their families to graduate from college, Hernandez, now a state senator, was a teen parent and worked long hours while commuting to Cal State Fullerton. Former U.S. ambassador Kounalakis, the daughter of a successful developer, attended an Ivy League college and is spending millions of her family’s money on her campaign.

But at a higher education forum in San Francisco on Tuesday, both candidates focused on making California’s public colleges and universities more affordable and accessible to the state’s record number of high school graduates.

“There’s been a shift from funding higher education out of the general fund to putting a very large burden on the shoulders of our students,” said Kounalakis.

Noting that the majority of high school graduates are students of color, Hernandez said, “We need to figure out how to get them through, so we can have the future Bill Gates of the world, we can have doctors, lawyers.”

Higher education is perhaps the policy area where California’s lieutenant governor holds the most official responsibility, with seats on the University of California’s board of regents and Cal State’s board of trustees. The candidates appeared separately at the event, which was sponsored by the College Futures Foundation and California Competes and included question-and-answer sessions with a CALmatters reporter.

Besides pushing the governor and Legislature to set aside more of the state’s general fund for higher education, both pledged to find creative ways to increase universities’ budgets, whether via property tax assessments (Hernandez) or philanthropic donations (Kounalakis).

Though neither candidate made commitments on working to lower CSU or UC tuition—both have said they’d oppose future increases—each called for the state to increase funding for Cal Grants, which help needy students afford college. Hernandez said more of that funding should be available to cover students’ living expenses, while Kounalakis said she wants to address what she called the “donut hole” in which some middle class families are ineligible for support.

On affordable housing, Kounalakis said she would work to ensure campuses rent dorms at cost, rather than charging students outsized prices in order to plug budget holes. Hernandez said the state should consider providing developers with subsidies in exchange for building reasonably priced student units.

The senator has several times pushed unsuccessfully to repeal Proposition 209, which bans California’s universities from considering race and ethnicity in admissions and hiring. On Tuesday, he said he’d continue working to diversify the state’s campuses.

“The campus presidents and the professors should reflect the demographics of the state,” he said.

Asked about the role of private colleges, Kounalakis raised concerns about the large debt loads carried by students at for-profit vocational schools. “I would like to steal as many students away from (them) and put them in community colleges where they can go for a much more affordable price,” she said.

This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.

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