Student-Centric State Leadership: A Q&A with Zakiya Smith Ellis

Zakiya Smith Ellis, New Jersey’s Secretary of Higher Education, has played a significant role in shaping federal policy around higher education affordability and outcomes over the past decade. She served as a senior advisor at both the White House and the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration, working on high-profile initiatives such as President Obama’s push to increase college affordability, the College Scorecard, and the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet.

From there, Zakiya led federal policy work at the Lumina Foundation—the largest foundation focused solely on higher education and postsecondary education—designed to develop new postsecondary financing models and increase college affordability and attainment. Insights & Outlooks interviewed Zakiya to learn her perspective on how issues of access and affordability are playing out in the states.

Insights & Outlooks: What are some of the key issues and highlights from your time in the White House—such as your focus on access—and how you are bringing those experiences to New Jersey?

Zakiya Smith Ellis: Access encompasses several complex and overlapping elements. The one we think about most is financial access, but there is also social access, which we can think of as the wrap-around services that will enable students to be successful—the counseling. There is a certain social capital we assume people have, but as we broaden access to people whose families don’t have a history of or experience with college or postsecondary education, we need to think about how to get people information, financial assistance, and social support. Finally, we have to give people access to the rigorous academic preparation needed to be successful in college. Those are the three main things that all of the textbooks will tell you—financial, academic, social. So then the question becomes, what does that look like from a policy perspective?

During my time in the Obama administration we worked on simplifying and clarifying the financial process by creating a more seamless financial aid application process, but that is just one example of what we worked on during the Obama years. In New Jersey, we are focusing on the needs of adult students and how we ensure they have access to affordable opportunities. The bottom line is that we must focus on those three needs and then design programs that take the needs of today’s students—sometimes called “nontraditional students”—into consideration.

Insights & Outlooks: One of the areas you’ve focused on over the years is understanding the non-tuition costs associated with college affordability. Why is that issue so important?

Zakiya Smith Ellis: We need to focus more on non-tuition costs because students will tell you that those are some of the things that most often surprise them. There are many hidden costs associated with education, which is something people struggle with. For instance if you are juggling work and school while caring for children, it can prohibit you from being a successful student.

One thing we recently did in New Jersey was expand access to SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) to more community college students. We are looking collaboratively across different cabinet agencies at the state level at how we can better partner to provide those wrap-around services. Carole Johnson, the Commissioner on Human Services in New Jersey, has been a great partner in this work, and the SNAP expansion was led by her Department. We are also trying to raise awareness so students have a greater understanding of the social services and supports they may be eligible for and connect them at the county level to ensure that when students are enrolling, they’re also being made aware of support programs.

Insights & Outlooks: Across the different roles you’ve held, equity has been a critical component of the work that you do. Now that you are working in state policy, what do you think it looks like for a state to successfully lead on the issue of equity?

Zakiya Smith Ellis: Equity is interwoven into everything we do. We need to be thinking about how we provide successful outcomes for students of color, in particular, but also for low-income first generation students as well. We are in the middle of launching our state plan for higher education, and the plan articulates a vision for a student bill of rights that would focus on what students need to be successful. The plan is rooted in the idea that we need better outcomes for students. To do that, we can’t be afraid to talk about the challenges we face in terms of outcomes among students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. We’re one of the most diverse states in the nation, but unfortunately, we have one of the largest racial gaps in terms of student success and students completing their postsecondary programs, leading to a large gap in the number of adults with college or postsecondary credentials by race and ethnicity statewide.

Two years ago, fifty-one percent of people in New Jersey had some kind of college or postsecondary credential, However, that number is much lower for people of color. When we started our plan, we put that statistic at the forefront and then thought to ourselves, if we want to be successful as a state—whether that’s economically strong, whether it’s just our democracy in the state, and whether it’s our values that we care about—we cannot have a higher education system that is so stratified and distressingly dissimilar and frustratingly low in particular areas. We, as state and college leaders, have to do all we can to close those gaps. I’m passionate about that part, and I think the federal government should, in partnership with the states, be thinking about how to increase success among students of color and low-income students.

Insights & Outlooks: You and Governor Murphy recently announced a new strategic plan for higher education in New Jersey. What are the key issues that informed your perspective going into creating the strategic plan?

Zakiya Smith Ellis: Often in higher education, we tend to focus on what different sectors need, and what the colleges need. While institution’s needs can be important considerations, we should be centering our work on what students need to be successful. A student-first, student-focused approach has helped us clarify our direction. We approached our state plan by creating a list of 10 things that encompass our vision for a student bill of rights, that outline what students need. These range from affordable and predictable education costs to quality information about that cost, to support for their own (student) success, to faculty and staff who support them, and an inclusive learning environment, among other things. It is huge for students to have a sense of belonging, and this is something that is too often overlooked but that recent research suggests really contributes to students’ ability to succeed in college.