Policy Expert Olga Rodriguez to Lead PPIC Higher Education Center

PPIC is pleased to announce that, starting in July, Dr. Olga Rodriguez is taking on the role of director at the PPIC Higher Education Policy Center, where she is a senior fellow and holds the Thomas and Marilyn Sutton Chair in Higher Education Policy.

Rodriguez’s career has been devoted to enhancing educational opportunities for all Californians. In particular, her research on remedial education has been a key driver of statewide reforms that have expanded access and improved student success at community colleges, especially among underserved students. We talked with Rodriguez about her vision for the PPIC Higher Education Center.

Tell us why you chose to focus on higher education.

Higher education is one of the most important levers we have for economic mobility. I grew up the daughter of immigrant farmworkers in the Central Valley. I was an English Learner, first-generation high school graduate, and first-generation college student. I saw firsthand all the leaks in the educational pipeline, like unequal funding of schools and the overreliance on test scores. I began to understand why people who share my background are so much less likely to go to and complete college.

I personally benefited from programs that gave me access to college prep courses and funded my college and graduate school education. But spots in these kinds of programs are limited, and college shouldn’t just be for the lucky few. My goal is for everybody to have access to college so that they can seek out a better life for themselves, their families, and their communities.

These past two years have been very tough. In your view, what are the key issues in higher education right now?

The pandemic surfaced deep inequities around mental health and access to food, housing, and technology. Fortunately, there has also been recent funding to help postsecondary institutions support these student needs. The key is that this funding needs to be ongoing so that institutions can more effectively address these long-term challenges.

Online education has been vital during the pandemic, but it has an uneven track record in terms of student equity and success. Ensuring that students have the resources and technology they need to succeed online—and providing professional development to faculty in delivering high-quality online courses—will be critical moving forward.

How do you see the PPIC Higher Education Center contributing to important policy discussions in the next year?

One of our ongoing areas of study is remedial education reform at the community colleges, which has had a transformative impact on student outcomes in math. Our upcoming reports will examine student outcomes in English, how English Learners have been affected, and ways to support those who are struggling under the new system.

College affordability is a huge hurdle. We plan to investigate how gaps in financial support can affect students’ college trajectories to help identify effective and equitable solutions. New work on the use of pandemic stimulus funds in higher education will build upon our previous finance research, which has investigated institutional costs and efficiencies in higher education funding.

We will also continue to study other leverage points, like transfer to four-year colleges and dual enrollment, to inform policy discussion on how to ensure equity in key transitions from high school to college and from two- to four-year college. Improving college access and completion is essential to help students enter rewarding careers that will enable them to live happy and healthy lives.

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