A Higher Education Model for the 21st Century

05/09/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Elisa Stephens Dr. Elisa Stephens is President of Academy of Art University

In recent days, President Barack Obama has rightfully focused our nation's attention on one of -- if not the single -- greatest threat to America's economic strength, the prosperity of our people and the future of the American Dream: the state of our education system as reflected by the nation's high school dropout rate.

Historically, one of the keys to America's economic success has been the competitive educational advantage our country enjoyed over the rest of the world. This historic educational competitive advantage no longer exists. And in a world where brains will mean more than brawn when it comes to the jobs of the 21st Century, we need to regain this competitive advantage.

For generations, our public education system served as a model for the world in how it helped train and prepare Americans to compete for and win the jobs of the Industrial Age. And, in particular, our higher education system was the U.S. education system's crown jewel. America's colleges and universities produced the entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers and management leaders that made America the globe's economic superpower. Americans recognized that the path to the American Dream was related to access to higher education. And our schools attracted the best and brightest from around the world, many of whom stayed in America and contributed enormously to our economic prosperity.

The dropout statistics cited by the President tell a damning story: Only 70 percent of entering high school freshmen graduate from high school -- never mind going on to college. More than one million students don't graduate each year. The problem affects blacks and Latinos at particularly high rates.

In an age where the majority of jobs -- especially those in fields likely to grow and more likely to pay better -- require some post-secondary education, this graduation rate constitutes a real and direct threat to our nation's economic prosperity.

America's economic strength -- the nation's ability to compete and win in a "world gone flat" -- is dictated more by brainpower than any natural resource. In fact, the great natural resource that will give our nation a competitive advantage in such a global marketplace will be the skills, creativity, and drive of our people -- and our education system needs to reflect this.

Today, simply put, we do not have the educational competitive advantage we once had.

We need to transform our 19th Century Educational system to fit our 21st Century world.

We know that given the right tools and training, Americans are more than capable of competing in today's global economy, yet our approach to education has not been adapted to the new world we are living in today. Given that education is one of, if not the most important competitive advantage a country will have to winning the jobs of the future, we need to act now.

So what does an education model for the 21st century look like? There are three core pillars.

The first is access. Today's higher education system does not offer access to all students. Take California for example, where we have a Master Plan for Higher Education that was designed to provide every student with access to a quality higher education. But today, our UC, Cal State University and Community College systems are turning tens of thousands of qualified students away every year. At the Academy of Art University in San Francisco where we prepare aspiring artists and designers for careers in fast growing 21st Century fields like graphic arts, web design and computer animation, we have a very democratic admissions policy. We don't judge students by their GPA or SAT score because those are not relevant to a person's ability to compete for the jobs of the 21st Century we train students for. Our theory is, any student who graduates from high school or demonstrates a basic ability to learn can enroll in our University -- we believe every motivated student deserves an opportunity to be successful in these fields.

Not every high school student is the right fit for the way our current higher education model is set up because they have not had the curriculum to support them -- and our current higher educational model isn't necessarily the right model to educate students for the jobs of the 21st Century. In 2009, California's high school graduation rate was 68 percent -- and one in five students dropped out (20 percent). Black students quit school at a rate of 35 percent while Latinos were at 26 percent. This is an entire generation of people that will not have the qualifications for 21set century jobs if we don't give them an opportunity. Many of the kids who drop out have the potential to be successful given the proper tools and training. As a nation, we need to rethink our approach to admissions so that all students have an opportunity to thrive. We cannot just give up on our kids.

The second pillar is accountability. Students must be held accountable once they are in school so that a degree actually means something. For example, at the Academy of Art University (AAU), we have a democratic admissions policy, but in order to graduate, students have to perform. We offer a high quality education -- if students are dedicated to being successful in school, they will be in a position to succeed when they graduate. They will have received an education that allows them to not just compete for -- but win the jobs of the 21st Century. A 2006 study documented that 81.7 percent of AAU graduates get jobs in their field. Our philosophy is that we will accept you, but you to earn the degree you have to prove yourself and be accountable. And one of the reasons so many of our students are able to get jobs is because employers know that our degree means something -- they will be getting an employee capable of producing and adding real value at a high level in jobs that require knowledge, creativity and discipline.

The final pillar is to be "output" oriented. Our education system should be more concerned about what our students do when they leave the higher education institutions than what they accomplished in high school. Our goal must be to prepare students to compete for and win the jobs of the 21st century -- especially jobs in the region where the Academy of Art University is located. That is what our country needs to remain economically competitive -- and what our students will need to live their own American Dream. At the Academy of Art University, we are serving a broader economic public benefit for the Bay Area by providing the brainpower that is supporting the area's most innovative companies in the arts and design space.

One of the reasons we are able to accomplish this is that our faculty members are all professionals in the existing market and are able to teach students about the realities of the existing high art and design-related marketplace -- and what it takes to succeed in these fields. As a result, AAU students develop an understanding of what it takes to succeed at work and what is needed for a business to succeed -- knowledge from leaders in the existing marketplace that is critical for a student to appreciate in order to prosper in this economy.

Companies and entire industries will develop as a product of the brainpower being produced by a cluster or higher education institutions. In the Boston area, schools like Harvard and MIT have helped grow a real bio-tech and high tech corridor of businesses. In California, Stanford and UC Berkeley, amongst others, played a big role in the birth of Silicon Valley. In our own smaller way and within our defined art and design space, the Academy of Art is helping to provide the higher education infrastructure for the Bay Area's companies that need art and design talent to succeed. Leading companies from Pixar and Electronic Arts to Apple and Adobe rely upon on AAU graduates.

Access, accountability and an "output" based approach to higher education are the pillars of our model at the Academy of Art University, but just because this model is working for us doesn't mean it will work everywhere. Elements of this model can and should be considered by education leaders as part of a new approach to higher education. Our country desperately needs the system to be changed to fit the new 21st Century world we are living in. Our nation's economic future depends on it. The American Dream is riding on it.