06/21/2012 06:51 pm ET Updated Aug 21, 2012

Reading, Writing And Arithmetic Are No Longer Enough

Our American education system is at an impasse. We once led the world in college graduation rates, but today we are faltering. The U.S. now ranks 20th in the world in graduation rates. To put it in global economic terms, of the G8 countries represented at Camp David last month, we rank higher than only two -- Russia and Canada.

Politicians, pundits, academics, parents and students alike have tried to tackle the issue but we do not seem to be making any meaningful progress. One thing is certain: there is no one-size-fits-all solution and we can't simply buy our way out of this problem -- despite calls by some to invest more tax dollars in programs at community colleges, which are already over capacity.

In many cases, students that are most impacted by the growing wait lists at community colleges come from "underserved" populations -- and that label is used for a variety of reasons: students may come from a low-income household, they may be the first in their family to attend college, they may be single parents often trying to hold down a full-time job while pursuing an education.

While a liberal arts education is valuable for many, requisite coursework that is not career-focused can be a deal-breaker for others. Non-traditional students are focused exclusively on getting an education that prepares them with skills and experience needed to build a career -- on preparing for real jobs in a new economy.

Today, more than 3 million students attend "career colleges" like The Art Institute of Colorado. As president of this institution, I know first-hand that they come to these schools seeking the training they need in specific disciplines such as digital artists, 3D animators, chefs, sound engineers, photographers and more. And they are succeeding. We are proud of graduates throughout The Art Institutes system of schools who've gone on to win Academy Awards, apply their skills in Michelin-rated restaurants, design in some of the most competitive fashion houses around the world and in many other creative careers.

It is a fact that "underserved" students graduate at lower rates, borrow at higher rates, and are more likely to default on student loans than their more affluent peers. Here's the bottom line: career colleges are more successful than traditional schools at educating "at-risk" population.

The Higher Education Act of 1965 was enacted as part of President Johnson's "Great Society" social program to augment the educational resources of American colleges and universities by providing financial assistance and higher education opportunities for low- and moderate-income families. The vast majority of students who seek out this type of aid can be found at career colleges today. Yet when it comes to student debt, their need for financial aid to improve their economic standing is not given thoughtful consideration. The coming retirement of the baby boomers -- the most highly educated generation in U.S. history -- is being followed by a substantial increase in an under-educated America, many of whom are college-aged. If this trend continues, the average level of education in the U.S. workforce stands to drop significantly over the next two decades.

Concurrently, the growth of a global, knowledge-based economy will require most workers to have higher levels of education. Employers will have increased flexibility to hire workers overseas, and as other developed nations continue to evolve and improve the education of their workforces, the United States will increasingly be at a disadvantage.

Reading, writing and arithmetic are no longer enough. In fact, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan has stated that the success of colleges like The Art Institutes is essential if the United States is to lead the world in graduation rates again.

In coming weeks, I'm looking forward to writing more about the higher education challenges we face. In the meantime, I welcome a sincere and collegial dialogue on meaningful steps we can take collectively to lead the world again in education.