What New Jersey Is Doing to Prepare Students for the Workforce: NJ Secretary of Higher Education Zakiya Smith Ellis Discusses the State’s Initiatives for Career Readiness
In the 21st century, the world of work is constantly changing. This podcast series, Reimagining Career Pathways, will explore the needs of the future workforce, rethinking traditional education pathways to connect students today with the in-demand jobs and skills of the future.
This year, the state of New Jersey has made headlines with their tuition-free community college initiative, which will provide additional grants to lower-income students enrolled at specific community colleges. According to New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education Zakiya Smith Ellis, the intention behind the initiative is to level the playing field for community college students across the state.
“Our hope in this is that we kind of cut through [financial barriers] for students and just say, look, you make less than this, you don’t have to pay. Period. No questions asked,” says Smith Ellis. “There’s a lot of other things that you have to worry about, like getting good grades and making sure that you keep up your progress in school. But in terms of the tuition and fees, we don’t want that to be a burden.”
In addition to the community college initiative, the state of New Jersey is making a number of other plans for increasing access to career-centric education.
“The idea of exposing students to college and career options, just things that are beyond their time in school, is something that we’re really supportive of,” says Smith Ellis.
One of the many ways the state of New Jersey is connecting students to careers is through experiential learning programs, like apprenticeships. While the state is interested in the growth of apprenticeships specifically, actually implementing these programs can come with some hurdles.
According to Smith Ellis, “One of the hardest things with apprenticeships sometimes is actually finding the industry partner.”
Yet there is demand for the expansion of apprenticeship programs.
“We have a lot of students who want that kind of experiential learning. And you get paid. Students are already working. So the opportunity to have that work be relevant to what you’re learning and you get paid. It’s just a win-win for everybody.”
So, what is the state of New Jersey doing to increase access to education and better prepare young people for the workforce? Listen in to our interview with Secretary Zakiya Smith Ellis and guest host Kevin Fudge of ASA to find out.
Kevin Fudge: Hi, this is Kevin Fudge. I’m the director of consumer advocacy and ombudsman for American Student Assistance. I’ll be your host for this EdTech Times series: Reimagining Career Pathways. Today we are speaking with Zakiya Smith Ellis, the secretary of higher education of the state of New Jersey. Hello Zakiya, how are you doing today?
Zakiya Smith Ellis: I’m doing well, thank you.
Kevin Fudge: So in a sentence or two, can you introduce yourself and the work you do with the state of New Jersey?
Zakiya Smith Ellis: Sure. I am Zakiya Smith Ellis. I am the secretary of higher education for New Jersey. And what that means is that I coordinate higher education policy for the governor of New Jersey, currently Phil Murphy. And I work with all of the colleges and other stakeholders to put forward a state plan for higher education, which is a process that we’re currently undergoing right now. And I also approve programs for higher education institutions that are operating in the state.
Kevin Fudge: So can you tell us what is the state of New Jersey doing right now that’s kind of unique in higher ed?
Zakiya Smith Ellis: Well, right now we’re launching a free community college initiative, which is really I think, unique because it’s more expansive than some of the other initiatives—not to throw shade on anyone else’s initiative. Some people call these kinds of initiative College Promise, but our tuition-free community college effort is called the Community College Opportunity Grant. And it would be for tuition and fees at community colleges. We are well underway in recruiting students right now. But the first students would see their tuition and fees covered in January—so in the spring. It starts in the spring semester.
Zakiya Smith Ellis: And it covers students no matter their nature—as long as they make less than $45,000 a year. And they can be young, or old, attending college first time or returning adults. And so we just think it’s unique, because it’s an opportunity for community colleges to really live up to their name and serve students no matter who they are and provide that opportunity. And we think, if you’re living in New Jersey, and you make less than $45,000, you really shouldn’t have to be worried about the burden of tuition and fees. So we’re just topping off whatever other grants you may be eligible for, and making sure that those students have that balance covered. And we think that’s pretty awesome. We think it’s an important first step.
Kevin Fudge: So can free college really make a difference, or I guess put another way is, what do you hope are the outcomes of this policy?
Zakiya Smith Ellis: So as an outcome, I think the first thing would be to just make sure that people aren’t scared away by the tuition. I think sometimes people that work in financial aid…and not just financial aid, but like people that are, you know, adults who have been around higher ed in some way shape or form. We know that there’s Pell Grants that are out there. There’s state need-based grants. And so we’re kind of familiar with the fact that, if you apply, you shouldn’t necessarily be scared by the sticker price, because there’s a lot of grant aid that could help you cover the sticker price, particularly if you’re from a lower-income background.
Zakiya Smith Ellis: And so our hope in this is that we kind of cut through that for students and just say, look, you make less than this—you don’t have to pay. Period. No questions asked. And that, you know, there’s a lot of other things that you have to worry about, like getting good grades and making sure that you keep up your progress in school. But in terms of the tuition and fees, we don’t want that to be a burden. And we think that has the potential to impact students who maybe would have thought, you know, I can’t afford this because I’ve got to take care of my parents, or I can’t afford this, because I have a kid of my own. Or I can’t afford this because I can’t contribute.
Zakiya Smith Ellis: In general, the tuition fees, we just want people to know if they’re low income that that’s not something that they have to pay for in the State of New Jersey.
Zakiya Smith Ellis: The other, I think, big impact is that it just really brings community colleges back to what they’re supposed to be, which is an open door for people in every community. In New Jersey, there’s one that serves every county. So, we don’t necessarily have a four-year public college in driving distance from everybody’s house. There are community colleges all across the state. And they were created to serve that purpose, to be kind of a more open way for people to be able to access higher education. So we’re excited about really helping community colleges live up to that promise.
Kevin Fudge: Sure. So as you’re introducing this plan throughout the state, has there been any conversation about earlier awareness? There’s a lot of movement towards early college and you know giving younger kids an idea of post-secondary education options. Has there been any talk within your office about introducing this to kids as young as middle school, and exposing them to community college and what they have to offer? Any partnerships like that going on right now?
Zakiya Smith Ellis: I’m all about early awareness and exposing students to college and also career opportunities earlier on, just so that they can kind of think about what life is like beyond high school, you know, as a next step. Like once I leave here, what are the possibilities? And so, we want to expand opportunities for students to learn about post-secondary options, but also career options much earlier. We don’t currently have a plan to tell students in middle school about the free community college initiative. One, because it’s our first year and we’re trying to get our feet under us. But also because we need to figure out the long-term funding for it. But I think more broadly, the idea of exposing students to college and career options, just things that are beyond their time in school, is something that we’re really supportive of.
Zakiya Smith Ellis: And we have a statewide College Bound program, which kind of aligns with the federal Gear-Up program to reach students in middle school, partnering with colleges to help them understand about postsecondary opportunities.
Kevin Fudge: Sure. So what do you—in your estimation, what is the role of higher education in building the workforce? Particularly, I guess, what are the two-year schools’ role in that, versus four-year schools role in that?
Zakiya Smith Ellis: So, I mean higher ed and workforce are so intertwined. We’re at a state, New Jersey, where the employers here really locate in New Jersey because of the high number of people that have college credentials and college degrees.
Zakiya Smith Ellis: So, it’s a draw for a business to say, I want to be located in New Jersey, because of our highly educated workforce. Just where we are in the Northeast Corridor, there’s a high need for people to have something beyond high school. So definitely from just a talent development standpoint, higher education and industry, or the workforce, are absolutely connected.
Zakiya Smith Ellis: But also from an innovation standpoint, there are people that work at the research function of colleges. And they are contributing to the economy by inventing new things and discoveries and patents and stuff like that, that are really funneling in to the business community in a very direct way.
Zakiya Smith Ellis: Everybody has to do something when they leave college. So college isn’t necessarily all about getting a job, but you know, you should be in some way being exposed to what the world and life is like, including the world of work when you leave. And so I know we have a lot of colleges that work very closely with employers to give students real-world training while they’re in school. And we know from research that you actually learn better when you have the opportunity to apply it. There’s almost no subject matter that practical application can’t help you be better at.
Kevin Fudge: Right. So, sort of like experience-based learning. Right.
Zakiya Smith Ellis: Exactly.
Kevin Fudge: And I know that there are some other states that have worked with corporations, private entities, to develop majors at the community college level. Is that something that New Jersey’s doing, or your office would approve, if a community college wanted to develop something in partnership with like a pharmaceutical firm or another advanced manufacturing company or something like that?
Zakiya Smith Ellis: Yes, absolutely. I mean we don’t necessarily have to approve all of those, unless they’re kind of going above and beyond what the community colleges regularly do. But, I know for certain that they are always working with local industry to make sure that their curricula is up to date, make sure that their offerings are relevant. And also just to offer students the opportunity for apprenticeship and internship. Our office is partnering with the Department of Labor to encourage more apprenticeships across all types of colleges in the state.
Zakiya Smith Ellis: But particularly with community colleges, we’ve been hosting technical assistance seminars and trying to find ways to play matchmaker a little bit. And help the colleges work with businesses and help the businesses see where colleges can help solve some of their labor market needs.
Kevin Fudge: Sure. Is there a certain number of apprenticeships available each year depending on funding? Or like, who’s in in charge of that? Is it just the schools themselves? Or do guys have a role in that? Or is it your own State Department of Labor?
Zakiya Smith Ellis: So I’m on an apprenticeship task force with the Department of Labor, the Commissioner of Labor, and the Commissioner of Education. And so, part of that is like developing an apprenticeship office where no matter who you are–so if you’re a student, if you’re a college or if you’re an employer and you’re trying to figure out how to plug in, that you can call that office. That they would also be the ones to keep track of what opportunities there are.
Zakiya Smith Ellis: And one of the hardest things with apprenticeship sometimes is actually finding the industry partner. We have a lot of students who want that kind of experiential learning. And you get paid. So students are already working. So the opportunity to have that work be relevant to what you’re learning and you get paid. It’s just a win-win for everybody. So students are interested. Sometimes it’s just trying to make sure that you get employers who are willing to be partners and to help them navigate: OK, well what does this mean for me? How is this different than hiring an intern? How do I fill out the paperwork? What are the requirements?
Zakiya Smith Ellis: But we have seen a lot of employers who just find it to be a constant source of employees. You have these apprentices, and they’re better trained when they start on day one than if you just hired somebody fresh, because you have to do so much training when people come on. Anyway, you can do that while they’re in school and you get a better trained employee. And the student gets the practical opportunity to put what they are learning in practice.
Kevin Fudge: Absolutely. So your task force then will hopefully expand on the apprenticeship programs that already exist.
Zakiya Smith Ellis: Yup.
Kevin Fudge: I’ve heard some talk nationally about like pre-apprenticeship programs because a lot of the apprenticeship programs are reserved for students 18 years and older, and typically for like manufacturing that you’re able to handle the equipment. And so like, is there anything along the lines of that, like the pre-apprenticeship opportunities for younger students to get that hands-on learning?
Zakiya Smith Ellis: Yes. We’re really looking at opportunities for pre-apprenticeship, so that students have that chance while they’re in high school. And then can kind of seamlessly get into apprenticeships after they graduate. So that is something that we’re definitely looking at. And the whole point of the task force in the office is to expand the number of apprentices and apprenticeships across the state.
Kevin Fudge: Yes definitely. So do issues of equity come up often? Because I think some of the times when you discuss opportunities for career and technical education and workforce development, some of the people who are in communities where traditionally they haven’t sent a lot of kids off to a four-year school might be reluctant and say, we want our kids to go to four-year schools. You know you shouldn’t tell us about these opportunities, because we want our kids to do the more traditional path that kids in the suburbs are doing. Like how do you kind of balance those issues, when you’re talking about opportunities and you really want people to succeed and have positive outcomes, but you want to ensure that’s equitable distribution across the board.
Zakiya Smith Ellis: That definitely comes up anytime you’re talking about career and technical education. People think it’s like the old school voch tech.
Zakiya Smith Ellis: Interestingly, in New Jersey, we have these county vocational technical schools. And they are extraordinarily competitive. People are clamoring for the opportunity to be able to learn in that very hands-on way.
Zakiya Smith Ellis: And so we actually have kind of what I think of as a reverse problem where you need to make the county voc-techs more diverse. And you need to create more equity within that very kind of technical training. We also have a long history of unions in New Jersey and apprenticeships that are available through unions. And where you can make a good living wage and have a good job working in a trade. And sometimes those weren’t the most diverse of fields, because they were very insular.
Zakiya Smith Ellis: We actually just need to make sure that everybody has access to high quality educational programming and high quality work experiences, no matter who they are.
Kevin Fudge: So recently ASA did a report on school counselors nationwide. And one of the things we found, to no surprise, is that the student-to-counselor ratio is kind of out of whack most places. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 students to every one counselor. And some states have taken on initiatives to lower their own ratios through like school grants or other things. And I’m wondering is New Jersey doing anything along those same lines to help with counselors as they work with middle school and high school students on college and career pathways?
Zakiya Smith Ellis: I served on the board of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, which does a lot of work with the American School Counselor Association, and always highlights the fact that there are so few counselors available for students. Particularly in areas that have a greater level of economic need. So if you’re in New Jersey and you’re going to high school in Newark, the likelihood that you have that personal counseling experience to help you think about your next steps is lower than if you are a kid coming from Princeton. So we want to think about, as we develop a state plan for higher education that really looks at making sure every student has good post-secondary options, that we have the input and the buy in from the school counselors and the college admissions counselors to say, how can we as a state help right that wrong?
Zakiya Smith Ellis: We think that disparity is unacceptable and that all students need high quality counseling. So what can we do to make that better over time. And there are some innovations around online and apps and things like that. But you know you can’t really replace the actual person in the classroom. But anything that we could be doing to expand opportunities for people to have that hands on counseling about their next steps we want to be doing.
Kevin Fudge: It’s nice to hear that you’re including the voice of school counselors in your development plans. I think one of the things I’ve noticed in my conversations with school counselors is the challenge when the administration wants one thing—Like every student applying to a four year school no matter what—and what the counselors see on a day to day basis and what they might recommend or encourage a student to do may be in conflict with some directive. So it’s really important, I think, in general to expand the idea of what college means. That it’s not just a four year school, that there’s multiple pathways. And how do we make those pathways strong and accessible to everybody.
Kevin Fudge: So kind of along those lines, can you tell me a little bit, getting back to two-year schools, can you tell me more about the New Jersey Community College Innovation Challenge and what that entails?
Zakiya Smith Ellis: Absolutely. So the Community College Innovation Challenge was actually our way of rolling out tuition-free community colleges in the state of New Jersey. We proposed a 50 million dollar program for community college opportunity grants, which are the grants that would go to students to pay their last dollar of tuition and fees to make sure that they didn’t have any remaining balance.
Zakiya Smith Ellis: The legislature and the governor’s final budget included 25 million dollars which was less than the amount that we had initially envisioned. So that meant that we had to figure out a way to create a tuition and fee free program for students that was less costly than our original vision. So what we decided was that we should do an innovation challenge, where we could work with the colleges who seemed like they were most ready to help us pilot this, and then kind of determine how to make the program work on a broader scale next year.
Zakiya Smith Ellis: So the innovation challenge really asked colleges for their proposals on how they would reach out to students in three areas: how they would be able to reach out to students to do outreach to let them know about this opportunity. How they would be able to support students, because we know it’s not just about getting students in the door, but it’s about helping them to complete and be successful in their programs. And then the last piece was about how well the colleges could do at looking at their own data and costs. So just recognizing that a large part of affordability and student success is looking at the data and saying like, ‘What are your students currently spending? What are their net prices at present? And what can you do as a college to help keep their costs low over time?’ And we wanted to know that the colleges had the capacity to do that.
Zakiya Smith Ellis: The other thing that we got out of this opportunity was, in addition to getting a pilot set of schools that was ready to help us hit the ground running, is then we can learn and we can figure out what works and what doesn’t work. So next year, my hope is that we’re able to implement that learning with a program that can reach more students across the state and not just at the selected pilot institutions. However, we were able to select of the 19 community colleges in New Jersey, 13 are a part of this pilot opportunity.
Zakiya Smith Ellis: We think we’re going to be able to reach about 15,000 new students who will get their tuition and fees covered as a part of this.
Kevin Fudge: Wow. That’s great.
Zakiya Smith Ellis: Yeah. In addition to students who probably already would have had their tuition and fees covered but just didn’t know. Next year we’ll be able to see if enrollment is higher than we would have expected it to be. Because that’ll be an early indication of how well that message of tuition and fee free is getting out there. And I will say, just a lot of the colleges, since they had to do the applications and we read all of them, had just great ideas about how to do outreach to students. And part of the funding wasn’t just the money for students but there was a five million dollar reserve to work with individual institutions to give them the flexibility to create.
Zakiya Smith Ellis: Whether it’s an outreach campaign, whether it’s a different way of doing intake for students. There’s just so many creative ideas about how to make sure that the colleges are well positioned to serve the students well after they kind of hear this great message about being able to go tuition free. How do you make sure that you as a college have the resources to do well by the students. And so I’m really glad that we had $5 million to give out to the colleges for their operational expenses in that way.
Kevin Fudge: Yeah that’s great. So as Secretary of Higher Education of the State of New Jersey, I’m assuming that you keep an eye on kind of like what other states are doing. Is there something in another state that that you see happening that you think is outstanding that you want to see replicated in New Jersey? And if so, can you give me example of that.
Zakiya Smith Ellis: I definitely spend a good deal of time thinking about you know what’s happening and what can we learn from what’s going on in other states. I mean on the community college front, we have certainly tried to learn the good the bad and the ugly from how other states have rolled out their community college programs. The good is you know having a really good plan for telling students about it and being very crisp about your message and not adding a whole lot of confounding factors that make it difficult for them to know whether they’re eligible.
Zakiya Smith Ellis: So we, we try to kind of model that and we’ll see how that turns out for us. Students swirl a lot these days. They go from one college to another and they’re not just in one place for their entire collegiate post-secondary career. And so how we make sure that their credits come with them. And that you know you take psychology at one place that you’re able to get credit for it at another place is really important. Because people do lose a lot of time and energy and motivation and money.
Zakiya Smith Ellis: They lose money because they’ve taken one thing, and then you’re forcing them to retake some of the same courses for reasons of you know bureaucratic nonsense sometimes. So, some of the places that have done a really good job I think in creating more seamless pathways from 2 to 4 year, I want to look at how they’ve done that and how they’ve been able to create those relationships.
Zakiya Smith Ellis: Another really cool thing that I love that I know some colleges in New Jersey are experimenting with it, is OER: open educational resources. Tuition and fees is one piece, but then you’ve got the whole cost of textbooks. So OER taps into kind of an online free library, if you will, to make sure that students don’t have to pay anything for their educational resources, their textbooks or course materials. And so I would love to see us in New Jersey kind of replicate states that are doing a good job in reducing the cost of textbooks and educational materials by tapping into OER.
Kevin Fudge: All those innovations sound great. And if there’s anybody that can implement them in New Jersey it’s you Zakiya. So thanks so much for speaking with me today, it’s been an absolute pleasure.
Zakiya Smith Ellis: Thank you so much for having me. It was great talking to you guys as well.
This podcast episode is sponsored by American Student Assistance®. ASA® is a national nonprofit committed to helping kids know themselves, know their options, and make informed choices to achieve their education and career goals. To learn more about ASA, visit asa.org.
Hannah Nyren is the General Manager of EdTech Times. A Texan by birth but a Bostonian at heart, Hannah is an educational writer, AmeriCorps alum, and one-time StartupWeekend EDU (SWEDU) winning team member. She started her career at a Pearson-incubated edtech startup, but has since covered travel, food & culture, and even stonemasonry in addition to education.