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Q&A with Educate Texas Managing Director of Higher Education, Kenyatta Lovett

April 22, 2021

We recently sat down with Kenyatta Lovett, Ph.D, our new Managing Director of Higher Education, to learn more about how he is working to help achieve the vision of Educate Texas and Communities Foundation of Texas.

Why are you excited to join Educate Texas?

I’m extremely excited to join the Educate Texas team for several reasons. First, the national reputation of Educate Texas has been at the forefront of innovation and best practices in the field of education. Educate Texas’ accomplishments over the years have inspired many aspects of my work in leading reform and innovation in higher education and workforce development.  

Second, I really appreciate the fact that Educate Texas never shies away from the things that need to be done that may be difficult to bring forth innovation and impact at scale.  

Last but not least, as Educate Texas begins to embrace this new area of higher education and workforce development, it aligns perfectly with the work that I have done previously as a leader at the campus level, the system office level, and even at the agency level in making sure that students with the greatest barries to success have better access to postsecondary education. 

So those are just a few of the reasons why I am excited to join Educate Texas. 

What are your hopes for students in Texas? 

My hope for the students of Texas is that they are presented with a plethora of options for postsecondary education. This could mean a traditional student who is going through high school and wants to have good choices for where they want to attend college, whether it be a 2-year or 4-year institution. It is my hope that, in the near future, every student graduating from high school is offered more certain pathways and given the right information about the road ahead for their personal and professional goals. More importantly, we must make sure all students have adequate resources – financial and other forms of support - to earn the credentials or degrees that will drive the future economy of Texas. 

This also impacts an adult who may have to go back to school and earn an additional credential, get some additional education to be more viable in their job. During this time of COVID-19, more and more industries have shifted their demands in workforce development. Employees may need to switch industries, and higher education is a pathway for them to continue being successful for their families and for themselves.  

Related to COVID-19, when we think about the high school graduating class of 2020 and even this upcoming high school graduating class of 2021, there are so many students who did not enroll in college who critically need the value and the power of higher education. My hope for the team that I’m working with is that we can reengage those individuals, provide them with access and affordable options, and make sure we get them back on the path of success that we know higher education can deliver. 

Why are higher education completion rates important for Texas? 

My work prior to joining Educate Texas has been mainly focused on improving retention and completion rates. It’s one thing to talk about access, and that’s an important part of the completion equation, but one of the bodies of work that I’m really interested in engaging with in Texas is in retention and success.  

There are so many factors that we know impact a student when they make the courageous attempt to invest their time and resources in higher education that keep them from getting across that finish line. First, we know that graduation rates are unfortunately tied directly to income. An individual from a high-income background has more certainty of earning that degree than a student who is just is just as capable, has the same aptitude and the skills, but comes from a low-income background. Our work will center on making sure that we improve and equitably close the gaps for those who are the most challenged with this completion trend.  

We also know that it’s not just the factors that exist within the classroom that impact college completion. We have so many students in Texas who have housing and food insecurities, as well as other challenges, that often are out of the purview of the faculty or even the institution. Our goal, which is part of our larger framework with Communities Foundation of Texas in building thriving communities, is to make sure that the entire community is supporting that student and supporting that institution so that everyone who makes the choice to enter into college is successful. 

Last but not least, we know that once a student understands their career options and where they want to end up after getting across that graduation stage, we need to provide them with better information on what jobs are available and what credentials are needed to get those jobs. We believe that retention and graduation rates will be improved significantly because of that clarity.  

Part of the work we want to build upon within the Texas College Access Network (TxCAN) at Educate Texas, and in our workforce development programs, is in addressing retention issues aligned with our state’s goal for attainment, the 60x30TX plan. This plan will be made more certain by making sure more students graduate on time and at a faster pace. 

What is the significance of degree attainment for the state of Texas and for communities? 

Degree attainment is a critical component of our work. Everyone in the state of Texas benefits from higher rates of higher education attainment. When you look at the community level, having better degree attainment improves the likelihood of citizens earning jobs and higher wages. We know that, nationally, individuals who don’t have a college degree compared with those with a degree have around a million dollars less in earning power over their lifetime or career. More income for these individuals turns into tax revenue, and all types of benefits for a community. When we work to improve attainment rates, we will see a lot of the issues in pockets across Texas getting a little bit better because of what we know degree attainment can deliver.  

Also, when we think about talent recruitment and talent retainment, Texas is an interesting position, like a lot of other states, with an unprecedented amount of economic growth. Industry is very interested in moving and relocating in Texas, but the most important factor they want to understand before they make the decision to move is how much talent exists in the area. This does not necessarily mean what you may be able to produce, but what actually exists where you are now. That determines whether investments will be made in a state, leading to jobs and other benefits.  

What happens unfortunately for a lot of states that have an economic boom like Texas is that there is an imbalance between talent development and talent recruitment. Importing talent turns out to be the easiest solution for states to deliver on the promises of a sufficient workforce to make sure they can keep the jobs and employers needed to have a successful, economically healthy environment. But the long-term and more sustainable solution leads to the question of how do we balance this recruitment with developing talent to make sure all Texans are a part of the economic and workforce development equation, ensuring long-term success for the entire state?  

Attainment matters for these reasons and for so many more, and our work at Educate Texas is fully in support of the state’s 60x30 plan. Also, relating to Communities Foundation of Texas’ goal of building thriving communities for all, if we can improve higher education attainment, so many more things around our state and in our communities will improve as well. 

What does success look like for Educate Texas’ higher education work in five years? 

For me, success in five years for Educate Texas and in our new work in higher education and workforce development, centers on a couple of different factors relating to the pipeline of education leading to economic mobility. First, we want to make sure in five years that there is a wider array of options for Texans to enter into postsecondary education, whether they’re choosing to earn a degree or they make the choice to get a short-term credential to keep moving along the pathway in their career. Our goal is to make sure that, regardless of where someone lives in Texas, they have plenty of options and are able to make good choices for what matters most for their household.  

Second, our work in building more comprehensive supports for students is based on testing out best practices we know improve retention and success. It is our hope that in five years, we will see significant improvement across the board in graduation rates at our community colleges and our four-year institutions. This will contribute to the attainment goal set for the state of Texas by 2030.  

Finally, going back to the conversation of the balance between talent recruitment and talent development, we’d like to see a shift for so many more students, whether they’re coming out of high school and have earned a postsecondary credential or they’re coming out of our universities or two-year institutions. We’d like to see that more students are prepared for the jobs of the future and for the jobs we have right now in a way that is much more intentional than it was before.  

All of these things that I’ve just mentioned we can measure in the coming years. Our goal for the improvement of college-going rates is to go from slightly over 50 percent to 65 percent. In looking at graduation and retention rates, we will provide the supports necessary for our institutions of higher education to improve their graduation rates. 

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