Until a few months ago, Courtney Henderson was a full-time mom raising five children.
Now she is part of a pilot project aimed at trimming the staggering number of adults in Louisiana 18 years and older with a high school diploma or less — nearly 1 of every 2 adults.
Henderson, 32, is on scholarship at Baton Rouge Community College, where she is studying business management in hopes of eventually opening her own hair salon. "I am going to do whatever I have to do to succeed," she said.
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Henderson is taking 12 credit hours, spends four days a week on campus and hitches a ride to and from classes.
"I am not giving up," she said.
Higher education leaders hope the pilot program benefiting Henderson and a few hundred other students soon turns into a state-funded program that could someday help transform the state's economy.
"They are there because they know this is going to be life changing for them," Commissioner of Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed said.
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The scholarships are aimed at helping adults often working two or three jobs, supporting a family and struggling to get ahead in the 21st century world.
It is an age-old problem in Louisiana, which has suffered from low education attainment for generations.
"We still have 1.7 million people with a high school diploma or less," said Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System and one of key players in launching the pilots.
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"The real story is, how do you survive economically with a high school diploma or less?" Sullivan said.
The program stems from a 2018 proposal that started big — state-funded college scholarships for adults.
"We felt like the data made the case that we have an adult problem, but we are spending the primary financial aid dollars for young people," Sullivan said. "We have to focus some of our resources on adults."
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The initial proposal quickly died amid recurring state budget troubles.
"The problem was the $5 million price tag," Sullivan said.
What ultimately won final approval was House Resolution No. 12, which directed LCTCS officials to launch a pilot project, with private money.
Sullivan and others did just that, raising $175,000 initially from community foundations, businesses and others to fund scholarships.
That allowed 112 students who met the requirements, including Henderson, to enroll in colleges last fall.
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The average age was 27.
Another $200,000 raised allowed 146 students to sign up for the spring semester.
The adult students outperformed those on traditional state scholarships — 2.82 GPA compared to 2.72 — and returned for the fall semester at a rate nearly 50 percent higher than other students.
"When you create the pathway for individuals they will take you up on it," Sullivan said. "Adults perform in the classroom at least as well as the recent high school graduates."
Sullivan has long decried Louisiana's huge number of adults with a high school diploma or less, and how it drives up the rate of Medicaid recipients, those who rely on other government benefits, and the state's bulging prison population. "This is an opportunity to produce taxpayers," he said.
"That language, I don't like it," Sullivan added. "But those folks in that building like it," he said, a reference to the State Capitol and the 144-member Legislature.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan "Blade" Morrish, R-Jennings, one of the sponsors of the legislation that sparked the pilots, said the program stands to benefit students, employers and the state.
"It's just a great opportunity for them to improve their lives and to actually have a skill that they can market," said Morrish.
House Education Committee Chairwoman Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, said the program will allow the state to tap into a huge potential workforce that lands quality jobs. "It is a benefit to the state and very cost effective," Landry said.
Louisiana's community and technical colleges are celebrating their 20th anniversary with roughly 150,000 students.
They cater to students much different, and oftentimes more serious, than those at four-year schools.
"When someone shows up on campus you have one shot," Sullivan said. "They have one shot. You better have something to offer them that day."
For $1,500 that could mean training for a commercial driver's license, and eventually a $50,000 per year salary, double the state's average income.
"The question becomes twofold," he said. "How do I find $1,500, and how do I pay the bills during the program?
"The program we are talking about here is how to solve part of the problem for them," Sullivan said.
Reed said the scholarships, and the hope they become permanent, also addresses a larger issue.
"We have said for so long, ‘This is the way,’ ” she said. "But we don't say how do you get there, how do you pay for it."
Other states have launched similar efforts, including one in Tennessee that enrolls about 6,000 students.
Any push to make the scholarships a permanent part of state government is likely a year away, in part because 2019 is an election year.
"We have to find a way to capture that adult market," Sullivan said.