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“We need to question everything; to look for ways in which we can improve, and embrace the imperative of change. At the end of the day, success shouldn’t be measured by how much ivy is on the wall,” said U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. “It should be determined by how you’re educating and preparing students for today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.”

Setting this tone of innovation, Secretary DeVos welcomed over 20 education leaders from across the nation to the Education Innovation Summit on Higher Education, held recently at the U.S. Department of Education’s headquarters in Washington. The agenda included general discussion as well as several featured presentations.

Anant Agarwal, CEO of Boston-based edX, said that our society needs a system where universities and educators can work with learners throughout their careers, not just during the traditional college ages of 18 to 22.

Ben Nelson of the for-profit Minerva Project asked the group to consider what the purpose of higher education is. He submitted that today businesses across various fields want the same thing: employees who have a core skill but can also have the well-rounded education to learn skills in new areas.

Kathleen Plinske of Valencia College in Central Florida recommended simplification of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid for students with the greatest financial need and recommended that short-term training programs that have already been vetted and approved by another federal agency be eligible for U.S. Department of Education Title IV funding.

Jerry Davis, president of the College of the Ozarks in Missouri, said that his college is a work college. That is, all students are required to work at jobs, leading to the school’s nickname of “Hard Work U.” The school has a student-focused environment where the students’ personal needs are regularly met. For example, one student’s father was in the penitentiary, and the student’s mother had died. The college’s Helping Hand Fund paid $3,000 for the funeral costs of the student’s mother. The student went on to graduate and today is a teacher. “From my own family experience and in work colleges for over 40 years,” Davis said, “I can tell you that not everything can be solved with a computer. Sometimes it takes a personal touch to make sure students don’t fall through the cracks in our society.”

Mike Zeliff, the dean of faculty and students at the Jack Welch Management Institute, said, “We treat our students like customers and rely on their willingness to recommend our program and our professors as a key performance measure.  The curriculum is designed to learn it today, apply it tomorrow, and return to the classroom to talk about their observations.”

At the end of the nearly four-hour summit, Secretary DeVos thanked the participants for creatively meeting the needs of the students that they serve. “I welcome your continued input to me and to the department on ways that the federal government can get out of the way on some of the things we need to get out of the way of,” she said. “And tell us the ways we can support meaningfully the things you are doing to serve students.”

Joe Barison is a public affairs specialist in the Office of Communications and Outreach