Smith Ellis is Helping Pioneer a New Vision for Higher Education in NJ

In March, New Jersey released a comprehensive plan to improve higher education in the state – a vision that New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education, Zakiya Smith Ellis, says is “student centric.”

“[The plan] seeks to ensure that every student, no matter their life circumstances, has the opportunity to obtain a high quality education that prepares them for life after college,” Smith Ellis says. “… I have talked to students from colleges and universities all around the state, and learned firsthand about their passion for learning and the challenges they encounter on the way to getting a college credential. [The plan] represents the collective wisdom of those conversations.”

Smith Ellis’s position has her at the forefront of all things education in the state, and she’s no stranger to the space, having served in the Obama administration as a senior adviser at the U.S. Department of Education and as a senior advisor for education at the White House Domestic Policy Council.

“Being in D.C., there’s always interest groups coming in to meet with you – there’s always someone with some ask. It was good practice for the same types of things that happen at the state level. … This job is about weighing a lot of different interests and priorities. You have to manage and balance all of it while staying focused on what your goal is,” Smith Ellis says. “Coming in, we wanted to make sure we had a state plan and develop a free community college initiative (the Community College Opportunity Grant program). You have to have your long-term vision as well as manage the day-to-day things.”

The new vision includes priorities such as exposing students to postsecondary pathways, ensuring better access and affordability for those seeking higher education, support systems for students, the cultivation of research, innovation and talent, and more.

“We tried to look at all the components that would lead a student to be successful and not just graduate, but to graduate with a career in mind with a credential that is actually meaningful and gives them real cache in the workforce,” Smith Ellis adds.

Of course, higher education’s role in growing the state’s innovation economy is critical.

“Higher education in New Jersey is diverse,” Smith Ellis says. “It’s a strong sector that fuels our economy more broadly. Businesses want to locate in New Jersey because they know we have a more highly educated population than most other states.”

Smith Ellis points out that New Jersey is more than halfway (53%) towards its postsecondary attainment goal of 65 percent by 2025 – putting the state squarely on pace to meet the ambitious goal set during the Christie administration.

Additionally, Smith Ellis hopes to better educate students about their education.

“If I can ensure high school students that what they learn in college will be relevant and show them exactly what their career trajectory is going to look like, that would be a gamechanger,” she says. “If I can give a student a piece of paper that tells them exactly how much they are going to pay, what their student loan payment is going to be when they graduate, and it being something that they can afford – that is the ultimate dream.”

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