From Non-Traditional Student to System President
The following interview is with Sandra Woodley, the recently-named President of the University of Louisiana System. Woodley, who herself was a non-traditional student, has held a number of high-ranking positions across the higher education space, most recently serving as the Vice Chancellor for Strategic Initiatives at the University of Texas System. In this interview, Woodley discusses the current support services in place for adult students in Louisiana, explains some of the challenges she faced as a non-traditional student who was juggling children, work and education, and shares some of her hopes for where she can take the System during her presidency.
1. What are a few of the features of the University of Louisiana System that support the success of adult students?
The University of Louisiana System has long been committed to non-traditional students. In fact, over 30 percent of the students that are enrolled in that System are older than 25 years old. They have also spent a great deal of time making sure that those students are not only welcomed in their university, but coming up with initiatives that facilitate their success through the program. And so, I think… they have a heart for students like me, not just the traditional students. And I’m really looking forward to getting there and helping with that even further.
2. You yourself are a former non-traditional student; what kind of features would you have looked for as being particularly helpful for you during your own educational journey?
Well, when I was going through school—and this has been, I’m exaggerating only slightly, about 100 years ago when I was going through school—it was really, really difficult. Thankfully, there were available to me… Pell Grants and financial aid.
But one of the things I struggled with, of course, was that I tried to get my education—I got married when I was 18 and had two small children in my early 20s. So literally the entire time that I was trying to get my education, I had to juggle working, changing diapers, paying the rent, and trying to get study time in to be able to juggle everything.
So, for me—and students like me—number one, the barriers are financial. You really do not have enough money to make ends meet. It’s very important to go to college, but it’s really easy to drop out when things get tough financially. I think making sure that particularly, those non-traditional students who do have financial barriers, making sure they not only have the knowledge about low-interest loans for example, any kinds of scholarships that may be available to them, childcare opportunities for them and also even sometimes more importantly than that, making sure that classes are available when they can actually go to class. So, nights and weekends and online—which I did very little online work because very little quality of online work was available while I was going through school—but those are the kinds of things that can help students like me be successful.
3. With that in mind, are there any particular changes you would like to bring about during your time as President that would make the higher education system more accessible and negotiable for adult learners in Louisiana?
As I said, Louisiana is already off to a good start. One of the things that they’re doing that I’m very excited about is they are developing soon-to-be a consortium degree in organizational leadership. This is aimed at adult students who already have some college who can get their degree totally online and they can specialize at any one of our institutions. There is a plethora of really exciting programs. So, these kinds of things can be available to them. …
But also I think that even in times of budget crisis and budget cuts as is the case in Louisiana—and as you know not only in Louisiana—making sure that student success is at the top of the list, as far as priorities in how you do spend the money that you have, to me is important. I think Louisiana is committed to that. So getting in there and working with the institutions to even add more value to the great work that they are already doing will be important to me.
4. Is there anything you would like to add about the way higher education is currently designed when it comes to serving adult learners, and what kinds of changes could be made to make it even better?
I think institutions who are committed to serving the non-traditional students many times get a short shrift when you look at performance indicators.
In Texas, and I think this is true in Louisiana as well, most of the metrics that are looked at very carefully have to do with graduation rates. Graduation rates in the traditional sense only pick up your traditional students; this is the first time, full-time freshmen. So in our System here for example, [at the University of Texas at] Tyler, only about 20 percent of their most recently graduating students ever showed up in that statistic, because they serve a lot of community college students and adult students who transfer in. So, that is a particular metric that only tells a very small slice of what their performance is.
So one of the things I’ve been committed to in Texas and I will also be committed to in Louisiana is making sure that when we look at performance metrics, they provide the full and accurate context for how each institution—given their own mission, and their own student body—are able to serve those students. So, looking at things like degree production as a percentage of full time equivalent students, for example, gives you a really good picture of the throughput rate. And also taking the time to gather specific data at that institution to be able to look at different cohorts of students and track their time to degree—even if they don’t fit into that very tight traditional mold. So, I think that’s important because many times these institutions are doing what we need them to do for students like me. Not only do they not get the credit for that work, they get hammered for not looking more traditional on some of those metrics.
Author Perspective: Administrator