THE BLOG
06/17/2014 12:48 pm ET | Updated Aug 17, 2014

Innovation in the Air and on Land

I boarded my most recent flight with the intention of getting a little extra sleep -- the baby I've mentioned in previous blogs is getting older, but seemingly sleeping less! However, there is something seductive about flipping through a magazine, uninterrupted! So I plucked up my complimentary copy of Delta SKY magazine eager to learn what the stars pack and why, but found myself reading about Delta's 85th Anniversary and the innovation the airline has consistently endeavored toward for the better part of a century.

What caught my eye and imagination was the recent launch of Delta's Innovation Class. The Innovation Class is a mentoring program that links up-and-coming entrepreneurs with innovative leaders in respective fields. Passengers headed to high-visibility events can apply to sit next to someone they admire, using their LinkedIn profiles. Delta's director of worldwide marketing and communications is quoted in the article as saying, "We know that some of the most creative, enterprising people in the world fly [Delta] and we thought why not help facilitate connections? Sometimes a single conversation can change the course of someone's career."

Not only did I immediately start dreaming up my own list of potential seat partners to discuss a myriad of issues in higher education (both challenges and potential solutions), but I also started thinking about who I would pair as seat partners to discuss higher education reform. The pairings are limitless, and I could write a blog about my "dream" partnerships -- think Dr. Jill Biden with Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos; or Michelle Obama with... well, me!

In turning my attention back to the article, I was fascinated by the many innovations Delta had to make through the decades in order to stay relevant and meet the changing needs of the population it serves. The Delta family tree is complex, and one glance communicates the number of airlines that did not survive changing times. Delta had to take chances and make unpopular decisions, such as being the first airline to voluntarily ban smoking on all flights in 1995 and being the first airline to mandate recycling. It had to be forward thinking, being the first airline to announce in-flight WiFi services, the first airline with mobile baggage tracking, and in 2012, the first airline to purchase an oil refinery -- thus being the first airline to produce its own jet fuel. I imagine enacting these changes was much harder than the glossy story belies.

The lessons learned from Delta over the years are applicable to many fields -- innovation is a necessity to survival, and higher education, specifically, needs more of it.

Little did I know that upon landing in St. Louis, my Blackberry would literally blow up with news of the new partnership between Starbucks and Arizona State University.

ASU President Michael Crow, along with with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, just launched the Starbucks College Achievement Plan. Starbucks employees nationwide will be eligible for a free college education through Arizona State University's online program beginning this fall.

The new initiative, touted as the first of its kind, will allow many of Starbucks' 135,000 workers to graduate debt free from ASU with no requirement to repay or stay on with the company. The funding will come from a partnership between ASU and Starbucks.

Under the program, Starbucks employees who work at least 20 hours a week will receive full tuition reimbursement if they enroll in ASU's online program as juniors or seniors. Others will be able to apply for scholarships worth $6,500, on average, if they enroll as freshmen or sophomores in ASU's online program. And ASU advisers will help them apply for other, need-based financial aid.

Higher education needs more innovative thought, unlikely partnerships, and perhaps vehicles like the Innovation Class initiative, to enact those ideas and partnerships. In order to meet the attainment goals set forth by the Obama administration, the Lumina Foundation, and others, we will need to stop pointing fingers and expending our energy on why things don't work. We need to be more flexible, adaptable, and nimble to the changing demographics of the students we are trying to reach. We need to play better together in the sandbox and we need to be open to change.

In the meantime, I'm soliciting ideas for potential seat partners and pairs. This could be fun.