Guest Commentator: Gaetan Giannini, Ed.D., Dean of Business and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Montgomery County Community College

What opportunities can colleges and universities offer to help their students prepare for 21st century jobs?

Over the last decade, the higher education landscape has been dramatically transformed. The sheer number of 18-22 year olds has diminished, the debt burden on students has increased, and there has been an ongoing debate about the value of higher education relative to job acquisition and lifetime earnings.

At the same time, post-secondary institutions are seeing a growing proportion of first-generation and part-time students (often one and the same), as well as adult learners, who are looking to enhance their skill set or move into specialized, in-demand fields that pay family-sustaining wages.

To meet these demands, colleges and universities must be forward-thinking in their approach to programming to help prepare students for these 21st century jobs. To begin, higher education institutions should embrace the fact that many people do not want or cannot afford to commit to completing a four-year degree, while more employers are shifting their hiring philosophies to focus on the skills of prospective employees, as well as credentials.

Higher education institutions should be intentionally collaborating with employers and using relevant data to create job training programs that have seamless pathways into and out of academic programs. Short, intensive programs that prepare students for specific careers should be created to yield a marketable skillset and bear college credits, either directly or through prior learning assessment, that count toward a degree. Such a scenario will aid students in progressing in their careers at a lower cost and in a way that allows them to work and pursue their education simultaneously.

In addition, higher-education institutions must realize that lifelong learning does not necessarily mean that everyone needs an advanced degree, but almost everyone will need to sharpen existing skills or add new credentials as their careers progress. Such an approach ensures that colleges and universities remain relevant throughout their students’ careers and increase the lifetime value of higher education without putting the students in a position where they are accumulating unnecessary debt.

Additionally, as artificial intelligence (AI) begins to impact the workplace, institutions should use this opportunity to reinvigorate and reframe the liberal arts, rather than sound their death knell. AI is great at doing repetitive work and handling highly analytical tasks, but is, as of yet, ineffective at handling situations where emotional intelligence is required. This is exactly the area where a liberal arts education excels and is an opportunity for colleges and universities to champion it in a 21st century context.

Community colleges in particular are well positioned to offer students either skilled, stackable credentials through short-term certificate programs or a foundation of learning with credits that seamlessly transfer to post-secondary institutions across the Commonwealth. Dual enrollment options offered by community colleges to high school students also provide a unique opportunity for students to both explore career possibilities and reduce future college debt by earning college credits while still in high school.

Though the landscape of higher education has and will continue to change, community colleges are able to quickly adapt, partner with local employers to fill skill and training gaps and continue to offer quality, affordable educational opportunities.