Interviews with Influencers: Dr. Zakiya Smith Ellis
Dr. Zakiya Smith Ellis has been on our radar for quite some time, and we’d argue it’s easy to see why. After years of working in the K-12 education space, she shifted her focus to higher education specifically in 2008. Serving first as a senior advisor at the Department of Education addressing challenges to college access, affordability and completion, and then as a political appointee under President Barack Obama where she helped develop and promote Obama’s higher education policy. She then worked in philanthropy, leading efforts at Lumina Foundation, the nation’s largest foundation dedicated solely to improving higher education. And if those were not accomplishments enough, earlier this year she was named as New Jersey’s Secretary of Higher Education serving under Governor Phil Murphy. Oh, and all of this to mention that she celebrated her 33rd birthday this year.
All that to say, interviewing her for our Interviews with Influencers web series was a total no brainer!
Q: What inspired you to work in education?
A: I have been interested in education since I was in high school. I wanted to be a teacher, and then I realized there were opportunities outside of the classroom that influenced whether students were successful or not. So even in high school I knew I wanted to go into not just education, but education policy. I was thinking about how to merge my interest in teaching with the desire to influence not just an individual classroom, but the entire educational experience for students. Growing up in Atlanta, I had wonderful teachers and I really enjoyed my educational experiences, but I also recognized there was things that happened beyond the walls of the classroom that impacted our experience. At my high school we went through metal detectors, we didn’t have a high graduation rate, and 10-15 of my female peers were pregnant our senior year. I understood that this wasn’t the experience of all students across the country, and had different structures been in place, the outcomes would have been different.
“While education is not the only thing you need to give someone opportunity and hope, I definitely believe it’s one of the key components to success. And in the broader struggle for justice, education is a key element.” – @SecSmithEllis
In general when I think about people, and people that have been historically left out, marginalized, oppressed in any kind of society, but particularly American society, a lack of educational opportunity has been an undercurrent of that marginalization. While education is not the only thing you need to give someone opportunity and hope, I definitely believe it’s one of the key components to success. And in the broader struggle for justice, education is a key element.
Q: If you had a magic wand, what is one change you would make in federal higher education policy?
A: Just one? I have a whole list! Well, one that immediately comes to mind given our current climate is that I would reinstate the regulatory agenda – namely the gainful employment rule. I get so frustrated when there are proposed eliminations with no replacement in mind. I also think we are experiencing a situation nationwide where we are at a loss for what to do about college affordability. We need partnerships in place between the federal government and states to encourage states to increase their investment in higher education, to provide them with best practices for how to invest smartly, and to offer some sort of matching program at the federal level. We invest a lot of money into our higher education system and that there’s currently no real way to ensure that money is being spent wisely is crazy. So yes, federal and state partnerships to address affordability, completion, quality, and equity are key.
“We invest a lot of money into our higher education system and that there’s currently no real way to ensure that money is being spent wisely is crazy!” – @SecSmithEllis
I’d also advocate for completely reforming student loan servicing. I can’t say I know exactly what that would look like, but it needs to be revamped. Currently student borrowers don’t have all the information they need about the lending process, which ultimately has resulted in far too many students defaulting on their loans.
Q: For the first time in New Jersey’s history, a majority of the Governor’s cabinet is female. How does it feel to be a part of that history-making group? And what are you most looking forward to as Secretary of Higher Education?
A: They said don’t read the comments, but I’ve read some! I remember in a few speeches early on, Governor Murphy talked about the diversity of his cabinet, and some people said, “We think you should find the most qualified individuals for the job, not just give handouts to people of color and women.” The truth is, women have always been qualified and I am so excited that Governor Murphy sees the wisdom that has always existed in a set of people. This is not the first time there have been this many qualified people, rather this is the first time it’s being acknowledged that there are qualified people and we’re not going to allow specific societies and structures to prevent us from tapping into that talent.
As far as what I’m most looking forward to, there are so many factors that are coming together right now in New Jersey to do amazing work in higher education. We’re almost at a precipice moment. Everybody in the state—from legislators to college presidents to the Governor—acknowledges that we lack a strategic direction for higher education. It’s very rare you come into a situation where all of the stakeholders are at least in agreement that change is needed. And in our case the timing just aligned, and all the key players were ready to make a bold statement in pursuit of a bold vision. The fact that I’ve had conversations with college presidents who have been in their roles for a long time who recognize that we’ve been doing something the same way for quite some time, and it’s not working, and that we need to do something different is huge.
We’re currently developing a master plan (official name TBD) for higher education in the state. A strategic vision that will give us a sense of how to allocate resources more wisely, and how to ensure students have the best experience possible. The fact that I have the chance to be involved in shaping that plan is just so exciting!
“Today, students are fairly uninformed about the full costs associated with a higher education degree, what “college affordability” really means, and what is financially expected of them. Even when purchasing a vacation, we have more clarity about the cost structure and what’s required as a consumer. If we can have it there, we ought to have it in our current higher education system. Students should not be without information when making such a big decision.” – @SecSmithEllis
The other thing I’m really excited about is our community college work. There is an opportunity in a state like New Jersey to really learn from all of the other work that has happened around free community college across the country. We can work to develop a plan for tuition-free community college that is inclusive, serves a broader swath of students, and we can do so having learned best practices from those states who have come before us. This also provides us with an opportunity to address college affordability more broadly. Today, students are fairly uninformed about the full costs associated with a higher education degree, what “college affordability” really means, and what is financially expected of them. Even when purchasing a vacation, we have more clarity about the cost structure and what’s required as a consumer. If we can have it there, we ought to have it in our current higher education system. Students should not be without information when making such a big decision.
Q: As someone who was twice named to Forbes Magazine’s 30 Under 30 list, and most recently to The Washingtonian’s 40 Under 40 list, where does your drive come from?
A: I’m incredibly thankful, and very humbled by these accolades, but admittedly it’s hard for me to see myself in that light. I just feel like there is still so much work to be done every single day. When I meet people, or go out into the community and see so much need, I’m reminded how there’s so much left to do in education and beyond. It’s such an empowering thing to truly help people have the opportunity for a better life, and that’s where my passion for this work comes from. I get a great deal of personal fulfillment knowing something I’m doing is helping others. When there’s nothing left to do, I can retire and hang out!
“It’s such an empowering thing to truly help people have the opportunity for a better life, and that’s where my passion for this work comes from. I get a great deal of personal fulfillment knowing something I’m doing is helping others. When there’s nothing left to do, I can retire and hang out!” – @SecSmithEllis
Q: Who are your influencers in education and beyond?
A: A few people come to mind immediately. First, my parents. When I think about their lives and their work and their experiences, I just have so much to learn from them. I also think of my grandmother, Julia Wells (who has Facebook and will definitely post this interview on her page!). She’s an extremely tenacious person who has overcome a lot in her life, and at a young age too. She graduated from high school, went to college, had my mother, completed graduate school while raising children, and ran for office. All around she’s quite impressive and often comes to my mind as an influencer.
“When I’m having low days I definitely turn on Beyoncé’s music to help shift my mood. If I wake up and am not loving my outfit, I’ll say: I woke up flawless, and everything is great! Girls run the world. We are feminists. All that stuff.” – @SecSmithEllis
And then more globally, I actually think about Beyoncé a lot! When I’m having low days I definitely turn on Beyoncé’s music to help shift my mood. If I wake up and am not loving my outfit, I’ll say: I woke up flawless, and everything is great! Girls run the world. We are feminists. All that stuff. And of course I have to say Oprah. I’ve never met her, but I think she’s amazing. She has a lot of interviews where she talks about her own success, and digs into her failures, or times when people didn’t believe in her. When I experience days where things didn’t happen the way I’d hoped, I remember if Oprah can bounce back, so can I.