On the Cusp: A New Horizon for Community Colleges
Pam Sornson, JD
The COVID pandemic appears to be receding as case numbers and hospitalizations drop and mask restrictions are lifted. Many people might pause, however, in the face of those realities, to consider which option will be best for them in their own personal circumstances: to mask or not to mask. The coronavirus has up-ended so many elements of daily life that its impending absence leaves people a bit perplexed about what to expect next and what a ‘new normal’ might entail.
California’s community college sector is experiencing a similar pause. The two years of the pandemic drastically changed traditional ‘college’ processes, and many of those changes appear to be permanent, even when fully open campuses offer a return to ‘business as usual.’ Some experts have assessed not only how colleges pivoted in the past but also how those pivots are informing future decisions. In their opinion, economic and community changes will significantly impact the future of higher education and permanently alter what most people have come to expect.
COVID-19 ushered in the era of ‘all-digital all the time,’ and it appears that there’s no turning back from that transformation. As the pivot erased thousands of jobs, the demand for newly valued digital services exploded, creating occupations for which there were few well-trained workers available. At the same time, social and environmental realities became substantial enough to command significant resource investments, even though there weren’t enough workers or resources available to meet those emerging needs. The consequence is a gaping vacuum of unfilled job openings in newly needed occupations and a clamoring of both learners and their potential employers for educational pathways into those emerging careers.
These are the conclusions of Burning Glass Technologies (BGT), whose 2021 “After the Storm” report envisions emerging employment opportunities arising from five newly recognized economies (as opposed to old-style industries). These economies span all commercial sectors and demand a different skillset and knowledge base from the traditional occupations that evolved the workforce from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution:
The automated economy, which relies on technology to perform thousands of tasks previously performed by humans. Computing systems programmed with artificial intelligence and machine learning now manage business details in a fraction of the time, with more accuracy and better results than humans can achieve. This trend will continue to grow.
The green economy, which is driven by climate change and its related concerns and promises cleaner, safer methods of generating goods and services that don’t also erode the physical environment.
The logistics economy, which is evolving from the collapse of global supply chains when the virus and its fallout shut down international borders and transportation systems.
The readiness economy, which will evolve to fill in the support gaps and holes revealed when healthcare, security, banking, and other industries were closed by COVID. Then-existing systems weren’t capable of responding to consumer demand when traditional infrastructures failed.
The remote economy, which facilitated an exodus out of the traditional office and workspace to home-based locations and allowed entire organizations to exist entirely in the cyber realm.
According to BGT, companies that don’t invest in the technological and physical infrastructure in which these economies exist will risk losing their market share, if not closure altogether.
Other experts have been eying these and other trends to determine how those will impact the nation’s higher education systems. For example, the experts at Inside Higher Ed (IHE), an industry think-tank, have examined how society has changed in the past two years. They, too, have examined the factors that are influencing how the higher education sector will transform itself in the coming years.
Firstly, a wide variety of new higher ed options have popped up online, offering low-cost degrees or certified diplomas and aimed at populations not typically seen on the traditional college campus. Providers include museums, libraries, and even well-known companies that all bring the credibility of their core competency to their educational courses.
Secondly, new styles of ‘college’ are also emerging, focusing on programs that address the needs of the global, digital, and knowledge economies. These schools are branching off the mainstream college design, just as the teaching universities (John’s Hopkins, as an example) changed their perspective during the Industrial Age.
Thirdly, colleges that are suffering from lost enrollments and course closures are transforming themselves around those programs that still provide value and using the COVID pandemic as an impetus to build back their presence in its new configuration.
Further, the IHE surmises how these three phenomena will drive five new realities in the higher ed sector for years to come:
New providers of content and delivery will compete directly with traditional colleges and universities. These providers will offer valuable training options through digital portals as an alternative to ‘time- and place-based education’ delivery systems. Their certifications will provide the credibility employers want to see.
Higher ed consumers will gain more power over their educational options. Rather than have schools determine what and how they’re going to teach, students and the businesses that want to hire them will demand courses that meet their respective needs, and colleges will commit to providing those services.
Higher ed consumers will also demand an ‘unbundling’ of college courses and services to make them more affordable and to better accommodate the learner’s specific opportunities.
The higher ed system will switch from tracking incremental education ‘outputs’ to tracking student ‘outcomes’ in terms of employment and compensation. The newly emerging ‘knowledge’ economy (which transcends each of BGT’s five economies) won’t measure success by the number of graduates but by the number of employed graduates. The eventual employment outcome of each student will become the fundamental indicator of collegiate success.
The system will also stop prioritizing four-year degrees over ‘just-in-time’ certifications as the epitome of educational success, at least in certain subjects. The speed at which systems are changing, coupled with advances in technologies, suggests that, in many cases, four years is simply too long a time to complete an education that remains relevant upon graduation. Further, the educational programs that provide the specific, occupationally focused training needed in so many industries will attain a higher status and more prestige, as their graduates bring cutting-edge solutions to cutting edge problems.
The insights gleaned from these evolutions compel all colleges to rethink their approach to and standards of performance if they intend to remain competitive and viable as the new post-COVID era emerges.
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