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Elisa Stephens Headshot

Universities Should be Rated Based on Output, Like the Rest of Society

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It is the second half of May -- the traditional season for the pomp and circumstance of university and college graduation ceremonies.

As the Class of 2010 picks up its diplomas and heads out into the "flat world" -- and into the midst of one of the more challenging job markets in a generation -- it is worth stepping back and considering whether America's higher education system has a sustainable model.

We live in an output-based society, where almost every sector is measured by the quantity and quality of production. No matter how small or large the institution or what the mission may be, at the end of the day, success is measured by the quality of what is produced by that institution.

A business is a success if it produces a good product or provides a valued service.

A non-profit succeeds if it acts on its core mission and makes a difference.

Voters re-elected public officials if they deliver on their campaign promises.

And, even in sports, teams are judged by whether they perform on the field or in the arena.

Yet, higher education institutions - which are one of, if not the most important determiners of our nation's economic prosperity - are not measured by output. Instead, universities and colleges are measured by a myriad of factors, from campus life and course offerings to SAT scores and selectivity to graduation rates and freshmen retention rates.

I believe this needs to change.

Graduates of 2010 face an extremely challenging job market. It seems like every week there is a new story about over-crowded job fairs, while the number of Americans collecting unemployment continues to be staggering. Our national unemployment rate is 9.9%. Americans rank the economy at #1 and jobs at #2 when asked what issues they are most concerned about.

Above and beyond the immediate economic challenges are the so-called structural issues challenging our economy because of globalization. Many of our manufacturing jobs have re-located off-shore where labor costs are significantly lower; technology is improving productivity but also eliminating jobs. Government, at every level, is facing significant economic pressures resulting in deep cuts that will eliminate jobs. We are in a 21st Century economy where economic success will be based on brains, not brawn -- while we still have a 20th Century public education system created to support an Industrial Age economy. In my view, most troubling is the fact that our historic educational competitive advantage has diminished.

Today, graduates are not just competing with others in the country - they are competing with young men and women in Mumbai, Moscow and Mombassa.

Students have been told that if they study hard and go to college, they will be able to get a job and live the American Dream. But that is clearly not the case today. Even as the economy shows signs of life, it may not be in the future because of these long-term challenges created by globalization.

What can higher education do? We can start by taking a "Jobs First" approach when it comes to serving our students and giving them the tools - both inside and outside of the classroom - that they will need to compete for and win the jobs of the 21st Century.

In addition to providing students with the intellectual skills they need to be successful in a global economy (which is the baseline), higher ed institutions have to be more aggressive in supporting students in both being prepared to be able to actually perform in the work place and in their job search.

Let me be clear: much of what higher education institutions in our country do is great. Across the board, we still have the best higher education system in the world when it comes to the quality of our schools and the access provided to students.

However, the changing global economy is changing our economic realities - and higher education needs to recognize and respond to these changes.

A student should look to their university as a partner in their job search - and universities should be evaluated by their success in connecting students with jobs upon graduation.

On May 26, Academy of Art University students graduate in San Francisco - but that won't mark the end of our work together in making sure that their degree results in a job. In conjunction with the traditional graduation ceremony, the Academy will put "Jobs First" by showcasing the work of our students to some of the most innovative companies in the world at what we call the "Spring Show."

The Spring Show is specifically designed to support the placement of students into high quality jobs. Student will have the opportunity to display their work in front of potential employers like DreamWorks, Electronic Arts, Pixar and Sony. At the Academy, we are committed to an output based approach to higher education. We work very hard to ensure that students who receive a degree from the Academy are ready and capable from day one to provide real value to the world's leading companies interested in bringing on top art, design and graphics talent.

By combining our traditional graduation ceremony with the Spring Show, we are focusing on our effort to not only graduate talented people, but to get them placed in high quality jobs with some of the most interesting, dynamic and creative companies in the world.

AAU's commitment to "Jobs First" has resulted in a real output - more than 80% of our graduates are being hired soon after they graduate in the fields in which they trained.

Other universities in our country are taking a similar "Jobs First" approach.

Boston area universities like Harvard and MIT have developed close working relationship with the bio-tech industry in and around Boston.

And, of course, there is a symbiotic relationship between schools like Stanford, UC Berkeley and others with Silicon Valley.

Every university has a similar relationship with their surrounding communities. Study after study shows that there is a relationship between higher education institutions, job creation and economic growth. But higher education institutions have not made it a priority to focus on output, probably because that is not how the public evaluates us.

Particularly in today's difficult economic times, the higher education community needs to begin to focus not just on graduation rates, but on where those graduates end up after the ceremony. We owe that to our students and their families.

It is in the best interest of our students, schools, surrounding communities and our country.