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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.

The prime candidates for enlarging Louisiana’s pool of college graduates aren’t just kids fresh from high school.

They’re also like Brikinya McZeal, who is 35 and had 47 hours in college, but moved into the workforce without getting a secondary degree. Now, because of Compete LA, a promising new program of the University of Louisiana system, she is taking online courses with a view to getting the business management diploma that would help her with her career.

For Jim Henderson, who heads the University of Louisiana system, that is the kind of student who can return to higher education either through online courses or in person.

That’s good for the nine UL System universities, since paying customers help the bottom line. But the way Henderson has structured the program is sensitive to the fact that someone like McZeal — now a manager at Verizon — has a higher expectation of customer service that the college must meet.

We like that particular aspect of the Compete LA program. A “coach” will help returning students navigate the system, “doing most of the legwork,” as McZeal said, to make re-entry to college as painless as possible.

For the world of government, customer service can be a difficult concept to embrace. But Henderson’s campuses have thousands of students who for many reasons take some courses, even several years’ worth, and do not end up with a degree.

Two-thirds of those who left college without a degree live in the Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Acadiana areas, Henderson’s data shows.

Henderson 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 recent meeting with our editorial board.

We applaud this initiative and also welcome a similar one from the community college system to try to develop data on who’s not finishing a program — and can perhaps return to complete a job-enhancing degree.

UL System campuses, like others in the state, have a problem with completion rates of traditional students, too. It’s expensive to give the one-on-one attention that can make a difference to a student ready to give up after a year or two in college. Some of those students have challenges a college can’t resolve, but those who are helped add to Louisiana’s population of folks ready to face the uncertain economies of this century with greater confidence.

Those with college degrees tend to earn higher salaries and have more options in the job market. Helping more Louisianans finish college is a win for them, and the state, too.