An Insider’s Look at Postsecondary Education in Louisiana

A Q&A with Dr. Kim Hunter Reed, Commissioner, Louisiana Commission of Higher Education  

Today’s students are more diverse, older and juggling multiple demands on their time while pursuing postsecondary education. The complex lives of today’s students often contribute to challenges in their ability to persist through their program of study and complete a credential. If you were to suggest a three policy changes that would address the challenges to better support persistence and retention of today’s students, what three policy changes would you implement?

When I think about today’s students and the challenges they face, I think about three areas: time, money and navigation. For time, recognizing that there’s just not enough of it. That calls on us to assess how we think about the learned and lived experiences of the students and how we help them to translate these into building competencies that can be measured and rewarded. When it comes to money, we need to make sure that people who are trying to squeeze a little education into their lives have the ability to fund access to quality credentials. Then finally, our navigation: I think it is incumbent upon us to make sure that we have very clear pathways for today’s students, that the pathways are transparent about the time and money that has to be invested, and the return on that investment for students.

Given your unprecedented two-time leadership role as a SHEEO in Colorado and Louisiana, what trends have you seen in strategies that support student retention at both two and four-year institutions?

When I ask students what’s the secret sauce of student success, they all say three things regardless of their geography and their type of institution or background. The first is a sense of place, as though they belong at the institution. Campuses that create a sense of place for students are more likely to retain them. The next is that students want peer, faculty or staff mentoring. Finally, students want a clear relationship between their time and money and the world of work.

Currently, federal law prohibits incarcerated adults from receiving Pell Grants. In May, the Department of Education announced that it will expand the Second Chance Pell program to 12,000 incarcerated individuals who are pursuing a degree or credential. As Congress considers reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, what are the reasons why they should consider making this experimental initiative permanent?

It’s both a public safety issue and a talent development issue from my perspective. We know that in Louisiana about 80 percent of the incarcerated individuals will return to their community, so it’s our responsibility to make sure they return stronger and better than they left. That means education and training. These are the critical tools to make sure that we lower recidivism rates, and we increase successful transitions for these individuals. I think Congress should move to ensure that we reinstate these opportunities because it’s important for us to recognize that individuals who have met their obligations in terms of serving their time and recognizing the consequences of their actions have an opportunity to contribute to society. The only way to do that is to have secured the competencies you need in order to participate in the workforce.

Last December, the Louisiana Board of Regents announced a new attainment goal calling for 60 percent of all working-age adults to hold a degree or high-value credential by 2030. What steps is Louisiana taking to help students of all ages work toward completing their degrees or earning high-value credentials?

We have a three-part challenge in Louisiana. We have an access and success challenge because not enough traditional high school students are enrolling, and not enough college students are completing what they start. Our second challenge is a significant equity gap between our white students and our African-American students. The third challenge is that half of our working population holds only a high school diploma or less. This is their highest credential they have at a time when you need much more. Therefore, we are focused on adult-specific programs, financial aid, and short-term, high-demand credentials. We are in a conversation with all of our state agencies that work with public benefits to think about how we can leverage these benefits because these students and families are seen throughout our various state agencies. They are in children and family services, foster care, adult or juvenile corrections facilities, receiving Medicaid, or receiving benefits from the Department of Health.

There is considerable intersection between federal and state higher education policy; however, there are clear roles for policies that support persistence and completion. In your experience, where do you believe there is alignment and in what ways are the roles of policymakers different?

Currently, I think we’re aligned in a need to focus on outcomes and a need to have good data to inform our policy work. We should certainly be aligned in our thinking about the importance of affordability, equity, access, and excellence in the work that we do. We want to make sure that when we think about the federal state in institutional work that we are coming together as one and that there are no weak links when it comes to supporting students’ success. I will say that as a person who has worked at both the state and federal levels and in multiple states, we know what needs to be done. I think it’s our responsibility to advocate for good policy regardless of where the federal government will be.

Given states are one of the three “legs” of the quality assurance triad, what actions should state leaders take to ensure education programs are of high quality and are aligned with both learning and career outcomes?

We’re having these conversations in Louisiana now. I have several board members who are business leaders. They always ask, “How do we know that this program is market relevant? How do we know that what we are approving matches what the workforce is demanding?” I think we have a responsibility to have a robust review process that allows us to understand the market’s needs and the foundational skills that students are receiving in these programs. We also have a responsibility as state regulators and a state agency to ask deep questions about how programs are doing. What are business and industry leaders saying about the programs? Are they hiring our students? Are the students ready on day one? Is there more work that needs to be done to ensure that we have a strong feedback loop between business and the industry and higher education to make sure that we are providing students with high-quality programs? These are the complicated and important conversations that have to occur to make sure that the triad is working for students.