The concept behind a year-old campus in Lee’s Summit that marries high school, college and industry could go national and radically change higher education, leaders meeting in Kansas City said Wednesday.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and James Shelton, acting deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, spoke at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation to local and regional educators and business and government leaders about spreading the idea behind the Missouri Innovation Campus across the country.
The Innovation Campus was created to provide a low-cost, accelerated pathway to a degree and a job. High school juniors do community college coursework and then get internships with potential employers. The businesses get access to a particularly skilled, career-ready workforce.
Students in the program come from 18 high schools and enroll in course tracks for careers in information technology. Students can graduate from high school with an associate’s degree, paid for with money earned during internships in their field of interest, and industry connections that could lead to a high-paying career. And, on top of that, little or no college debt.
“It’s a concept as simple as it is impactful with three key components dealing with cost, time and readiness,” Nixon said. That’s significant, he said, at a time when college tuition is up and students graduate with fewer opportunities and with crippling student loan debt.
The Innovation Campus, pegged as a model for the region and the rest of the country, tackles those problems and “sets a new benchmark for what the possibilities in higher education are,” Shelton said.
He called the program innovative because it could affect many lives and change the way we think about what higher education ought to be. “Everyone should be clamoring to get here and figure out how it is done,” Shelton said.
With little fanfare, the Innovation Campus was launched last year by the University of Central Missouri in collaboration with the Metropolitan Community College-Kansas City, the Lee’s Summit School District and numerous business partners.
The campus hit the national stage in July when it was mentioned by President Barack Obama during a visit to the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg. In a speech, he challenged other colleges and universities to pursue initiatives similar to the Missouri Innovation Campus.
And last year, Nixon made $9 million in grants available to roll out innovation model campuses elsewhere in the state and signed legislation establishing an innovation campus fund.
“What is at stake is nothing less than the strength of our economy,” Nixon told the gathering Wednesday. “If our students and workers aren’t prepared for 21st century careers, our businesses will not thrive and our economy will fall behind.”
The innovation campus model allows industry to communicate with educators to make sure the graduates coming out of college are exactly the workers they need to employ, said Charles Ambrose, president of the University of Central Missouri. “We don’t need more money to do this; we just need to align our resources.”
Spreading the innovation campus model, Shelton said, is the future for higher education, and he wants to be a part of helping it expand.
“Everything we need to get this started is in this room, so let’s just get it done,” he said.
But, Shelton said, for the program to grow and be sustained nationally would require state support and policy changes that provide a way to measure knowledge gained through on-the-job training and internships rather than classroom seat time, and give students degree-level credits for that knowledge.
Such changes, Shelton said, could end the college credit system used in the U.S. since the 19th century.