Lande Ajose ’87

By Alicia K. Gonzales
Diplomacy & World Affairs

Armed with a briefcase full of challenges facing the nation’s largest higher education system, Lande Ajose brings new energy to Sacramento.

Lande Ajose ’87 was recently going through some old papers when she found a loan that she had taken out as a student at Oxy more than 30 years ago. “It was a national direct student loan for $4,000,” she says—an “impossible” amount at the time—“and it took me 15 years to pay it off. Four thousand dollars is nothing now. Right?”

But the true cost of college, then or now, is not just tuition, according to Ajose, who brings a wealth of experience to her role as California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s senior policy adviser for higher education. It’s actually more expensive in many places for a student to go to a community college than to go to a Cal State University or a University of California campus, she says, “because you cannot get the financial aid at a community college that you would get from a CSU or a UC.”

With nearly 3 million students spread out over 115 community colleges, 23 CSUs, and 10 UCs, California is home to the nation’s largest state-run higher education system. But just over 50 percent of them earn associate degrees in three years or bachelor’s degrees in six. One of Ajose’s top priorities in the governor’s office is to do all she can to help students complete their degrees in four years.

Raised by a single mom in an immigrant household in Berkeley, Ajose embraced all that Oxy had to offer, including four years of Glee Club, and forged close friendships that endure to this day. (She has three siblings, two of whom followed in her footsteps in attending the College.)

Ajose developed her social sensibilities at Occidental in an era when colleges nationwide were being urged to divest from companies that did business with South Africa’s apartheid government. “It was a time of activism and a time of promise,” says the diplomacy and world affairs major, who also was involved in the Occidental College Coalition for Access and Choice, an organization formed in response to the Reagan Administration’s proposed financial aid cuts. Along the way, she learned how to engage in difficult conversations with her professors and even college administrators—and to bring her evidence-based A-game.

“Whether I was taking a math course, or Rocks for Jocks, or feminist literature, or a DWA course, they all started from this understanding of ‘What is the evidence? … What does that mean for the values that we espouse?’” she says. “That is very much what my career has been about. The idea that I could think about the meager beginnings that my family had in this country—and do something to systemically allow others to be able to have access to that kind of opportunity—is a calling.”

Being in an educational institution that approaches that task with a fundamental commitment to rigor, to evidence, to open-mindedness—those are really core American values that are essential for upholding our democracy.

California is in a cost crisis. “No matter where you live in this state, it’s expensive, and that hits students in particular ways,” Ajose says. The opportunity to tackle college affordability head on is what brought her to Sacramento to work with Newsom.

First up: addressing the overall student experience. “We’re going to look at everything related to higher education through the lens of the total cost of attendance,” she says. “You’ll see in this budget a commitment to mental health services for students, to basic needs, so that we can reduce the kind of food and housing insecurities that, shamefully, many students face these days.”

Being in an educational institution that approaches that task with a fundamental commitment to rigor, to evidence, to open-mindedness—those are really core American values that are essential for upholding our democracy.

In her ongoing role as chair of the California Student Aid Commission, which distributes $2.5 billion in Cal Grants and other forms of financial aid to roughly 400,000 Californians each year to help them complete their degrees, Ajose is uniquely poised to address growing concerns about the cost of attendance—and whether California needs fundamental financial aid reform.

“Financial aid is not an inexpensive investment,” Ajose says. “It could cost as much as twice the amount as we have now to really account for the total cost of attendance for all of our students.” Yet she is convinced that Californians can still live out values first championed in the Master Plan without going under, financially speaking.

“We need to understand how we are going to support everyone to be able to go to college over time and to be able to pursue the kind of degree and credential that they most want to pursue,” she says—and that includes people from low-income households and communities of color. “People don’t have the same expectations for underrepresented communities that they have for others. It is important that we hold up an expectation that everyone can have a four-year degree.”