Published on 2019/01/24

Establishing Space for the Community College of the Future

The EvoLLLution | Establishing Space for the Community College of the Future
Two-year colleges are perfectly placed to help build the labor force of the future by supporting reskilling and upskilling as industries automate. But leaders must go beyond curriculum upgrades and focus on building external support for, and understanding of, the college.
We are approaching the steep side of exponential change brought about by advancing technology. Daily, we’re hearing stories of futuristic advances in artificial intelligence and automation that until recently belonged in the realm of science fiction. This transition that has the potential to disrupt every facet of life, from the way we live and work to how we experience reality.

Believing we are on the brink of a fourth industrial revolution, World Economic Forum President Klaus Schwab challenged leaders across the world to thoughtfully engage with and plan for a preferred future amid disruptive change.

How might higher education leaders respond?

This fourth industrial revolution is driven by several technical advancements: Artificial intelligence and the advent of machine learning; robots and their ability to do mundane, rote jobs; block chains and cryptocurrency that create new, secure methods to transmit data; and augmented and virtual reality that allow us to see and experience the world in vastly different ways. These all have the potential to upend society in unforeseen ways.

Recently, particular attention has been paid to the disruption that the fourth industrial revolution will have on jobs. Automation and AI are projected to have a widespread impact on employment—not just on low-skilled jobs, but on white collar and high-skilled industries like financial advisory services, the law and radiology. In an oft-cited paper from 2013, researchers from Oxford predicted that 47 percent of jobs are at risk of automation.1 Subsequent studies have been less dramatic, though still alarming. A 2017 report by McKinsey Analytics estimates that, for 60 percent of all jobs, 30 percent of tasks can be automated. Further, 32 percent of workers may need to switch occupational categories.2 A more recent study estimates that 14 percent of workers are in jobs that are at high risk of automation, while another 32 percent are at risk.3 This all creates a greater imperative for attainment goals and the need to ensure that at least 60 percent of the population have some form of postsecondary credential.

Even more alarming is the disproportionate impact automation will have on diverse populations. A report by the Institute of Spatial Economic Analysis highlights the impact of automation by race, ethnicity and gender. Latinos have a 61 percent probability that their jobs will be automated and African-Americans a 55.2 percent probability, while whites have only a 49 percent probability of automation.4 These numbers lend greater urgency to efforts to serve these populations.

The disproportionate impact automation will have on younger demographics is also striking. Those aged 20-24 have a 63.2 percent probability that their jobs will be automated. While enrollment levels are projected to dip as the pipeline of high school students declines, these numbers may actually signal increased enrollment as even more jobs become scarce.

This data drives the need for conversations about the skills that will be necessary for future workers. A McKinsey report from May 2018 estimated that the total number of hours worked using technological skills will increase by 60 percent, while hours worked using social and emotional skills will increase by 26 percent. Conversely, the number of hours worked using physical or manual skills will decrease by 11 percent, while hours worked using basic cognitive skills will decrease by 14 percent.5 These numbers will help drive conversations about future academic programs and skills.

Complicating these figures is the fact that an estimated 65 percent of elementary school students will work in jobs that don’t exist today. Colleges need to figure out whether the skills of the future are embedded in current programs.

However, the answer isn’t merely to invest in training for technology skills. The data hints at potential widespread social upheaval—far beyond a simple workforce retraining problem—that will challenge our assumptions about work and its role in society. In his book, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, Martin Ford argues that the coming fourth industrial revolution is fundamentally different from the previous three. There will be a substantial net job loss that will create unemployment challenges for wide swathes of the population. While this is hard to fathom given our record low unemployment rate, paying attention to these potential impacts will help guide community college work in the future.

A key question to consider is whether current and new programs are aligning with the potential jobs of the future. Experts suggest that the key skills for the future of work will be those that make us uniquely human: Our ability to create and empathize. The ability to work alongside computers. The ability to learn.

Making curriculum changes and adding new programs will not be enough address what’s coming. College leaders must ask themselves critical questions about the future. These questions will be challenging for colleges that are already experiencing initiative fatigue following intense efforts to change the way they serve students. Leaders need to raise awareness within their institutions about the need for a massive effort to reskill adults in the next decade.

Theories and practices of change management will be increasingly important. Leaders must share an informed vision of the probable future while building an internal path toward a new reality.

Leaders may need to ask whether conditions are ripe for colleges to be disrupted by alternative means to deliver, assess and credential education. MOOCs, somewhat dismissed as a force for change after an initial burst of activity, have increased their reach dramatically in the last few years. Companies like Coursera are now offering degrees and certificates. Perhaps the force with the most potential for impact is blockchain technology, which may fundamentally change the way in which credentials are awarded and shared between employers and students, essentially removing the college as the arbitrator of accomplishment.

Leaders will need to consider existing governance structures and ask whether they are nimble enough to respond quickly to widespread change. Is there alignment between state and local governance structures? Is there a shared vision propelling the system forward, with a clear understanding of the roles and responsibilities at all levels? Do trustees understand the coming changes well enough to make strong decisions about strategic planning and policies?

Finally, because these external pressures come at a time when state legislatures have been systemically disinvesting from higher education, colleges must lead conversations with governors and state legislatures. They need to educate politicians about upcoming technological change and map out a comprehensive funding and policy strategy that places colleges at the center of a thoughtful response. They need to develop a long-term plan that highlights the looming problem with specific data on potential state-wide impacts. The business community must be brought on board to help deliver the message. All of this must create a sense of urgency and a willingness to strategically plan for the allocation of resources to fund the necessary retraining of adult workers.

The challenges are vast, but the opportunities are great. Let’s start planning and create the future we want through the leadership of community colleges. After all, the best way to predict the future is to invent it.

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1 Frey, C. and Osborne, M (2013, “The future of employment: how susceptible are jobs to computerisation”, Oxford Martin,

2 “Jobs lost, jobs gained: workforce transitions in a time of automation”, McKinsey & Company

3 Nedelkoska, L. and G. Quintini (2018), “Automation, skills use and training”, OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, No. 202, OECD Publishing, Paris.


5 Bughin, Jacques, et al. “Skill Shift Automation and the future of the workforce.” Mckinsey & Company, May 2018,

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