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University of Louisiana System President & CEO Jim Henderson, left, shakes hands with Gov. John Bel Edwards, center, before each spoke at UL System Day at the State Capitol, where over 1,200 students, alumni and faculty from nine universities showcased academic programs and performance groups for state leaders. At right is State Sen. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria.

Brikinya McZeal is about to start taking college classes again, lured back to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette 15 years after leaving by a new state push to boost the woeful number of adults in Louisiana with a college degree and the skills needed in a changing workforce.

McZeal, 35, plans to take 12 hours online during the fall semester to go with the 47 she already has in hopes of earning a degree in business management.

What got her attention is a new program called Compete LA, which is targeting the 1 in 5 adults in Louisiana — 653,000 — who went to college but left without a degree.

Louisiana ranks 49th in the nation in education attainment, with just 23.4 percent of adults earning a bachelor's degree or higher, according to state figures.

Two thirds of those who left college without a degree live in the Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Acadiana areas.

The aim of the push is to make returning to college easy, including academic “coaches” and other hands-on assistance that can knock down barriers for otherwise college-bound adults put off by the red tape.

Jim Henderson, president of the University of Louisiana System, said adults already juggling jobs and child care responsibilities can see their back-to-college plans squashed with questions about transcripts and parking fines.

"Any one of those barriers is enough to derail them for the next several years," Henderson said during an interview with the editorial board of The Advocate.

"We designed Compete Louisiana to eliminate barriers so that we can take those working adults that have some college but no degree and quickly get them back on the path toward degree attainment," he said.

The UL System includes the University of New Orleans, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Southeastern Louisiana University and others.

McZeal, 35, is the mother of two children, ages 10 and 9. She left school in 2004. "And it was always supposed to be temporary," she said. 

"Then when I went to work and became a manager at AT&T, a lot of the people I was managing had degrees and I was managing them," she said. "I never went back."

Not long ago she made inquiries about returning to college.

"I had applied to McNeese and Loyola," she said. "They were giving me the runaround. I have children. It was just too much."

She heard about Compete LA on Facebook.

"When I found out about the program, that they are encouraging former students and doing most of the legwork, it was a no-brainer," she said.

Adults still have to figure out how to pay for the classes, especially since students now must handle about 70% of the price tag at Louisiana schools.

"That can be a barrier," Henderson said.

But Compete LA is also part of a multiprong effort to transform Louisiana from something of an education backwater.

Only 4.5% of adults ages 25-49 who left college without a degree are enrolled in classes, according to the Louisiana Board of Regents. That is the second lowest percentage in the nation.

At the same time, the state ranks high when it comes to the kind of repetitive jobs most likely to be replaced by robots.

Henderson said the outlook is especially grim knowing that the workforce of 2030 will look much different from today's.

"We are preparing students for jobs that don't exist," he said.

The regents next month plan to launch their ambitious master plan aimed at more than doubling the number of degrees and other credentials issued annually by 2030 — to 85,000 per year.

"It will demand that Louisiana postsecondary education and its partners try new approaches, disrupt the status quo, implement new strategies for all potential student populations, enable all students to participate and emphasize re-engagement of working-age adults," according to the plan.

Commissioner of Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed said Compete LA holds promise.

"We applaud the campuses in the University of Louisiana System for the clear message they're sending to adults with some college credit in this state. We're here to educate you," Reed said in a statement.

The Louisiana Community and Technical College System has launched a pilot program aimed at trimming the number of adults 18 and older with a high school diploma or less — now 1 of every 2 adults.

"The requirements to be gainfully employed and contributing to this economy, the skill set requirements, continue to escalate," said Monty Sullivan, president of the LCTCS.

The latest effort is supposed to formally kick off around the end of the month.

Officials said the modest costs of assisting adults returning to college can be handled by tuition and fees.

Henderson said some who re-enroll in college will qualify for grants, school aid or tuition reimbursement from their employers.

McZeal is getting some tuition assistance from her employer, Verizon.

Henderson said he hopes that, in five years, about 10,000 adults will be resuming their college careers and thousands of others will have finished.

"That is the scale of the program that is necessary if we are going to move the needle," Henderson said.


Email Will Sentell @wsentell@theadvocate.com.