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Innovation key to improving Arizona’s education system

Brian Mueller

Brian Mueller

Forbes recently released its 2014 list of the world’s most innovative companies, and once again, the lineup is impressive.

Whether or not you agree with the selections, the impact these companies are having — sometimes on entire industries — is undeniable.

As education leaders, we should steal a page or two from their playbooks. I’m not talking about being innovative for innovation’s sake, but rather using innovation to effect positive change.

Last month, I joined a group of distinguished local leaders for a spirited discussion about the state of higher education in Arizona. We agreed that education is the lynchpin in retaining our state’s favorable quality of life, and we praised Arizona for creating a solid educational infrastructure.

But despite the many learning options for students and the good work that is being done by both public and private institutions, we acknowledged that Arizona’s education system continues to lag behind, with students grossly unprepared for college and countless jobs going unfilled.

In the past, our state has lost thousands of students to California, Texas and other neighboring states, especially for those seeking a quality Christian education. Worse yet, the rising cost of tuition has forced some students to mortgage their education while keeping others from considering college at all.

Reinvention of our state’s higher education is in order, and it’s not as daunting as you might think.

In my view, education reform starts by creating a model that makes earning a degree accessible and affordable to all Arizonans, regardless of their financial circumstances. At Grand Canyon University, our hybrid model of serving traditional students, along with online working adult students, has achieved remarkable efficiencies. By leveraging our assets across these two distinct student bodies, we have been able to freeze tuition for six straight years while investing an astounding $400 million in new programs and facilities at our west Phoenix campus.

Balancing the needs of universities and students is critical, but it’s only part of the solution. We also must look for ways to deliver the greatest education value. That means focusing on academic programs in areas of study, such as science, technology, engineering and math, that are in greatest demand for workers.

Statewide, an estimated 1.2 million STEM jobs will be available in Arizona by 2018, yet our universities are producing just half the number of graduates needed to fill this demand. It’s why GCU is working hand-in-hand with local industry to fill the pipeline with STEM workers and help Arizona attract more high-tech companies that rely on having this work force in place.

This is no small task, but it’s one made easier thanks to collaboration — which brings me to a third innovation.

In the new, post-recession education environment, shrinking budgets continue to squeeze schools, causing widespread cuts in programs and staff. Though this new paradigm creates challenges, it should not be viewed as a deterrent. Instead, we must marshal the resources of schools, industry and even governments in ways we may not previously have thought possible.

I have seen the power of such partnerships firsthand. In the spring of 2013, students from Alhambra High School visited GCU, taking in their surroundings as I have never seen before. Many of them told me that being on campus made them consider for the first time the prospect of going to college.

It was these students’ fervent desire to succeed that inspired The Learning Lounge, a partnership with Phoenix Union High School District. As part of the program, GCU’s brightest students offer free tutoring and mentoring to under-performing Alhambra High students in an effort to raise their skills in core areas of study, while improving the school’s scores on state and national assessments. The program has met with remarkable success: Alhambra High is only 10 points away from being a “B” performing school — a giant leap from its failing performance just a few years ago.

It’s this kind of thinking without boundaries that will help move our education system forward, just as it has propelled some of the world’s most revered companies. For them, the mantra is “innovate or die.” Thankfully, our education leaders have begun embracing that philosophy, too.

— Brian Mueller is president and CEO of Grand Canyon University.

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