The Missouri Innovation Campus: Education at the speed of business


LEE’S SUMMIT, Mo. — These days, going to college is just half the battle. The average student aged 20 to 30 pays $351 a month to repay student loans. When they graduate, they often face struggles getting a job in their field.

Brian Green counters the prevailing narrative. He graduated in May with a degree in systems engineering and quickly began his full time job as a systems engineer at Cerner, a job he was offered in September. He’s debt free.

Green’s only 20 years old.

“I’m done two years early. I graduated debt free,” Green said. “You’ve got that value of not having to look for a job because you’ve already secured one.”

Green graduated as a member first class of the Missouri Innovation Campus, a collaboration of the University of Central Missouri (UCM), the Lee’s Summit school district and Metropolitan Community College (MCC), as well as more than 30 corporate partners. Under the innovation campus program, students out of Summit Technology Academy work towards their high school and their Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) degree out of MCC at the same time, while starting an internship after their junior year. Then the students matriculate to UCM while continuing with their internship year-round.

The Missouri Innovation Campus pathway
The Missouri Innovation Campus pathway

The first cohort graduated this May and of the ten employed students, they’re averaging around $60,000 in salary (the eleventh is pursuing another degree).

Missouri Innovation Campus has become a model for success around the country and was touted by President Barack Obama in a visit to UCM’s Warrensburg campus in 2013.

Dr. Charles Ambrose, president of UCM, identified four elements in college education that also serve as goals for how the Missouri Innovation Campus wants to change higher education.

“College costs too much, it takes too long — because the longer it takes the less likely you are to succeed — and there is a well-defined skills gap between what a degree represents in the workforce and a rapidly changing economy and the requirements to drive that economy forward,” Ambrose said. “And then the last element, which is families are having to borrow too much.”

As the Missouri Innovation Campus succeeds, Ambrose and others around the country are looking for ways to increase the scale of the program and help education change to reduce the cost and the skills gap.

“The real value of the program has been in in those first graduates and what they’ve been able to accomplish,” Ambrose said. “And that’s what gives us the encouragement that replicating this program and taking it to scale is possible.”


In 2013, Obama hailed the Missouri Innovation Campus as a creative response to some of the issues facing higher education, including some of the elements Ambrose identified. But as far as officials with the program know, it’s still the only program of its type in the country.

“We don’t copyright anything. We tell them here’s how we do it and hopefully they can adapt it to their area and to their location,” said Stan Elliott, director of the innovation campus.

It’s not like the program’s administrators haven’t been singing its praises across the country. But while other places have early degree programs or dual credit programs, there’s still nothing like the Missouri Innovation Campus.

The key to the program’s success might just be collaboration.

When you combine the University of Central Missouri, the Lee’s Summit school district, Metropolitan Community College and scores of corporate partners all working together on a single program, you might expect some hiccups and certainly some delays getting the program off the ground. Instead, the Missouri Innovation Campus launched within just six months.

“[It] started with conversations in the late fall of 2011 and we started developing our first program, which was systems engineering, for networking in January in 2012 and we were delivering the program by June 2012,” Elliott said.

That’s an astounding speed in higher education. For comparison, Ambrose said the last time UCM reviewed its general education curriculum, it took six years.

“It’s a lot of meetings and the people who come to the meetings have an air of collaboration about them. They’re not really coming to shut it down,” said Elaine Metcalf, director of Summit Technology Academy.  “Instead of just going, ‘No, it can’t work,’ we’re rolling up our sleeves and figuring it out. It only happens because we have that air of collaboration.”

Part of the collaboration, Metcalf said, is figuring out how grades work when students attend three institutions over the course of three years. It also requires buy-in from faculty, staff and parents.

A positive corporate influence

While collaboration might be the key to holding the Missouri Innovation Campus together, corporate partners have made a big difference in making the program successful.

The biggest component of program is the three-year internship the students are placed in for work. Starting after the summer of their junior year of high school, the program’s participants start their internships. They don’t stop until they graduate, and by then most of the students have been offered jobs at their company.

“It’s stretched out across years and so you really get to see the full lifecycle of a project from the very first start to the end,” Green said. “The longer term internship is really the big selling point of the program.”

The partnership with the companies goes beyond the internship though. They also have a hand in helping to shape the curriculum the students are learning, a key component to closing the skills gap. Most of the business partners have embraced the change.

“When you’ve got managers telling us that it’s the most meaningful professional opportunity to mentor these Innovation Campus students, then that means something,” Ambrose said.

Part of the inspiration for the innovation campus came from a UCM alum who had the idea of using school as an incubator for his business.

“The principle was really kind of refined with a UCM alum who said, ‘I want to start a new company, I want to make your students my employees, my managers and engineers your faculty, the production floor the classroom, the tools of work, the cutting edge kind of tools these students work on would be your laboratories that most likely the state of Missouri will not have the ability to assist to fund,’” Ambrose said.

All of the administrators said corporate buy-in has been one of the biggest difference makers. It could also end up being the biggest challenge. As the partners have seen the benefits to their companies of the interns, and now students, they want more.

“All of the banking industries in Missouri in particular are looking for these kids who can write code or know about the security of their industry,” Metcalf said. “I see lots of business partners wanting us to have way more than 90 kids in the pipeline.”

The big benefit to these companies has been closing the skills gap. As they hire these students who have been interning with them, they need to do less on-the-job training because they already worked with the innovation campus to make sure the curriculum covered subjects they thought the students needed to know.

They also get to keep talent in Missouri, instead of seeing it go to tech hotbeds on the coasts.

“All of our business partners are like, ‘How do we get this talent pool going?’’ Staying and being educated here,” said Metcalf. “What happens if there are these kind of techy students, they get recruited away to the east coast or west coast. Our tech companies right here in the midwest are saying we want to keep them here.”

Of the ten innovation campus students that are employed after graduating, all are employed with one of the Kansas City area partners.

What’s next?

If the corporate partners want to see more students, the program is going to have to expand. To help, the program is building a new $40 million home. It was financed through a bond approved by the voters in Lee’s Summit.

Everyone at the program seems to be ecited about what the new building will mean.

“That state-of-the-art, one-of-a-kind teaching and learning environment that we’re going to create, and I don’t say this lightly, is going to be one of the largest $40 million billboards that says you can actually lower the cost of college, take less time to get your degree, cut the skills gap and reduce the reliance on student debt.” Ambrose said. “And even though brick and mortar aren’t the most important elements of the program, this is going to be a real front door to what this program can do.”

The 140,000 square foot building will house both Summit Technology Academy and the University of Central Missouri’s Lee’s Summit campus. Both institutions currently have around 40,000 square feet of space, so the new building is expected to be a big expansion for both of them.

“We see this as a way to continue all of the collaboration that we’ve been doing but also meet some workforce needs for the state of Missouri,” Metcalf said.

Part of that meeting workforce needs will include short-term training space and a place for exams that people in the community might need to take for their career.

“It will help across all students. Adult learners, students with some college and no degree, retooling and retraining, in workforce training,” Ambrose said. He added the building would generally help with the same elements he touts. “Reduce the skills gap and put people in the position of being more competitive with the talent that they bring to the workforce.”

Ambrose said there have also been talks to bring the innovation campus directly into Kansas City, where it would benefit a more diverse set of students.

“When you think about the demands for the rapidly changing workforce, diversity is one of those rich assets that we’ve got to invest in,” he said. “The more students that we can get out of a multicultural, multigenerational, multi kinds of that represents the changing face of America, the more employers are going to invest.”

In Lee’s Summit, the program might already be reaching a ceiling in terms of how many students can participate. Metcalf sees a 32-student cohort as about right each year. They have to find enough talented, “techy” students each year to make that work.

“Mom and dad may say you’re going to do this, but they’re not the ones who are working 40 hours a week during the summer while they’re taking six credit hours,” she said. “We always want to make sure that it’s 100 percent a family decision or that the student is ready to roll up their sleeves and work hard.”

And it takes a strong commitment from students to want to participate. They have to put in a lot of work. Still, Green, who ran cross country for his high school and UCM while participating in the Missouri Innovation Campus, says he’d recommend the program.

“The way I did it, I took full advantage of what was put on my plate,” he said. “You kind of wear yourself out, but you definitely come out in a really good spot.”

More important might be the slow export of the model. While they’re still the only program like this in the country, everyone can learn from the Missouri Innovation Campus and how it takes leaders from three educational institutions and dozens of corporations all together to make something different work.