KANSAS CITY — Amid concerns that students are going into debt to earn degrees that aren't preparing them for jobs in emerging industries, a coalition of suburban Kansas City business, community and education leaders is planning an experiment to make college cheaper, quicker and more relevant. Ultimately, Gov. Jay Nixon wants to see the idea spread across the state.
Through the program, to start this fall on a small scale, students will begin earning college credits and workplace experience while still in high school.
Over the next several years, businesses and classrooms will begin emerging on a nearly 100-acre expanse of land in Lee's Summit. Businesses locating at the so-called Innovation Campus will employ students as apprentices and help pick up the cost for their education — either by paying them or contributing money for their tuition. When the students finish a bachelor's degree, ideally two to three years after high school graduation, the businesses will commit to hiring many of them.
"There is a demand for us to reshape higher education where it costs less and takes less time and has a more usable degree and doesn't rely on debt," said University of Central Missouri President Charles Ambrose, who is helping to design the program.
Earlier this month, Nixon announced $500,000 in community development block grant funding for the project. The money will underwrite apprenticeships and training opportunities beginning in high school and continuing after students reach college.
Nixon also said his administration will provide $10 million in competitive grants to adapt the Innovation Campus to serve more Missouri employers that need workers with specific training and skills. Nixon's administration will be ready to solicit applications for those competitive grants on March 1, with funding to be available by July 1.
From 30 students the first year, the Lee's Summit program is expected to expand to 50 or 60 more students in the next year and up to 100 students in year three.
Don Nissanka, president and CEO of Exergonix, a startup company specializing in utility-size storage units for electricity, presented the idea for the program to Ambrose not long after Ambrose took over as University of Central Missouri's president in 2010. Plans have moved quickly, with Lee's Summit agreeing last summer to advance $1.4 million to Nissanka to purchase land for the campus.
Construction is expected to begin later this year. Nissanka, a graduate of the University of Central Missouri, said initial plans call for a 150,000-square-foot structure for classrooms and a 50,000-square-foot building for Exergonix, which could be expanded to 200,000 square feet. Other large buildings would be added later for other companies.
Efforts are under way to lure more businesses to the campus, particularly those focused on green energy.
"That knowledge base is very lacking in the U.S.," Nissanka said. "We talk about green jobs and the creation of talent and everything else but unfortunately we aren't taking it to the grass roots of teaching students what they are really expected to do."
Students will apply to the program through Summit Technology Academy, which is run by the Lee's Summit School District and prepares students for an array of career fields. College credits will come from the University of Central Missouri and the Metropolitan Community College system in Kansas City.
Ambrose said a new approach is crucial given that higher education institutions are getting less of their funding from state governments. There's a limit, he said, to how much of the expense can be passed to students.
At Lee's Summit, students would pay nothing for the college credits earned in high school. After high school, efforts would be made to maximize financial aid opportunities and finish college quickly.
If all goes as planned, Ambrose said, "it becomes very difficult to tell the difference between a student and an employee, between a workplace and a classroom, between a manager and a faculty member. There just becomes a sharing of responsibility for that learning the student is getting in the applied setting between the institution and the private sector and it somewhat replaces perhaps some of the resources required from the state to educate a student."