Education: The Heart and Soul of Our Nation's Economic Recovery

10/13/2010 12:37 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Elisa Stephens Dr. Elisa Stephens is President of Academy of Art University

The United States economy - as well as the global economy - has been through a very tough couple of years, and it is hard to predict when we'll fully recover.

I believe we will bounce back - and we will bounce back strong. And I believe education is going to play a major role in fueling America's innovation economy.

The question is, can we expect to come out of this recession as strong as we once were without the best education system in the world? I am the president of a university and my professional experience leads me to conclude the answer to that question is no.

We need an education system that is focused on educating students for the jobs of the 21st century so that when students graduate, they are ready to create, design, build and innovate. Innovation is what our world needs right now more than anything.

The bottom line is, we need students eager to take on our world's greatest challenges - but they need to learn the skills to get that job done.

Classrooms have to be equipped with up to date technology so that students have the knowledge and experience they need to use those technologies successfully upon entering the workforce.

Schools have to be able to adapt their curriculums in real-time to reflect the latest innovations and technologies.

Instructors should have real-life experience in the markets in which they are educating students to pursue careers.

Education institutions have to be more focused on helping students develop the skills they are going to need to be successful. Education institutions can have a major impact on innovation in America - with the right approach: a "Jobs First" approach.

It is no secret that as a country, we do not have the educational competitive advantage we once had. However, higher education institutions can and do serve as a catalyst for development of high performing economic sectors - if there is a real focus on preparing students for career success.

We live in a world where brains, and not only brawn, will determine the success of our students, our region and our country.

In the Bay Area, where the Academy of Art University is located, the region has become one of the most important sectors of the U.S. economy because it is a global center of brain power -- especially innovative brain power.

In our own targeted way, the Academy of Art University is helping to fuel the creative workforce for Bay Area companies that need art and design talent to succeed. The Academy is one of several higher education institutions in the area that provides a pipeline of innovative talent in the area of art and design.

Companies from the Gap to Pixar to Lucas Films benefit from the Academy's graduates.

As President of the Academy of Art University, I am most moved by the impact our creative students have on the region's innovation economy.

This symbiotic relationship between the Academy and the Bay Area community is dynamic. The University's academic programs contribute to and draw from the cultural and professional wealth of the community.

They thrive together. The creative industries and the cultural riches of the Bay Area, together with an emerging pool of fresh talent and innovators, feed a truly innovative economy.

This morning in San Francisco, released a report on the impact of the Academy of Art University on the Bay Area's "Innovation Economy" and I am extremely proud of the report's findings.

In the ongoing public debate about the rate of default on federal student loans, Congress, as they should, wants to ensure that taxpayer money directed at higher education is well spent.

The report released this morning finds that the Academy of Art University is providing students and taxpayers with a "strong return on investment." Our 5.5% default ratio in 2008 is lower than our 5.6% rate in 2007 - despite one of the worst recessions in history.

The report cites the fact that the Academy of Art University's work-ready graduates are a major factor in our low rate, which is on par with non-profit universities and 23% below the average of other proprietary institutions.

And students and local businesses are not the only ones benefiting - so is the Bay Area economy. The Academy generates an annual regional economic impact of approximately $500 million and full‐time employment at the Academy grew by 25% from 2007‐09, while in the same period, overall local employment dropped by over 3%.

This is precisely why I believe education is at the heart and soul of our nation's economic recovery.

Education is the engine of innovation and economic activity -- and it is happening all over this great country.

The more we invest in rigorous education programs that educate students for the jobs of the 21st Century, the quicker our communities will recover and the stronger we will be as a nation.

We can do this - it just takes a "Jobs First" approach.