4 Things to Know about How Students View Community College AI Education

New America documents the experiences and perceptions of the first crop of students in community college AI programs.
Blog Post
As AI education expands at community colleges, student voices matter in responding to building quality workforce programs.
Miami Dade College
May 28, 2024

This article was produced as part of New America’s Future of Work and the Innovation Economy Initiative. Share this article and your thoughts with us on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, and subscribe to our Future of Work Bulletin newsletter to stay current on our latest research, events, and writing.

Community colleges are critical to the innovation economy. In recent years, community colleges have moved beyond their roots in skilled trades, manufacturing, and healthcare into emerging technology workforce development for key sectors, including those Congress enshrined in the CHIPS and Science Act, such as biotechnology, autonomous vehicles, energy technology, and quantum science. Their affordable, nimble, and employer-aligned programs help meet middle-skill labor market needs in the innovation economy, completing the work of universities.

Now, thanks to substantial investments from federal agencies like the U.S. National Science Foundation and employers like Intel, Dell, and Amazon, at least one community college-level AI offering now exists in most U.S. states.

Community college AI programs run the gamut from K-12 immersions, certificate programs, associate’s degrees, most recently, applied bachelor’s degrees (24 states permit their community colleges to offer applied bachelor’s degrees).

Around 41 percent of all undergraduate students attend a community college, and 65% come from families earning less than $50,000 a year—many of whom are from marginalized communities underrepresented in the tech sector. Beyond meeting employer and economic development needs, their diverse enrollment means a more representative workforce can access new jobs resulting from AI. Expanding AI education at community colleges makes sense, but it’s important to hear and learn from students themselves, who will comprise the workforce of the future.

New America’s Future of Work and the Innovation Economy Initiative conducted interviews with six graduates and current students from AI programs at three different community colleges to capture the insights, perspectives, and experiences of the very first community college students in AI programs. Here’s what we learned.

1. Community college baccalaureates are valued

Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce predicts that within the next seven years, nearly 30 percent of jobs will require some college or an associate degree, and another 42 percent of positions will need someone with at least a bachelor’s degree.

Muskaan Shazhad is pursuing a Bachelor of Applied Technology degree in Artificial Intelligence & Robotics at Houston Community College
Source: Muskaan Shahzad

In the AI era, community college baccalaureate pathways are playing a crucial role in streamlining a career-connected credential ladder for students like Muskaan Shahzad. She is among the first crop of students to enroll in Houston Community College’s (HCC) bachelor’s program in AI. After receiving her AI associate’s degree in May 2023, Shahzad seamlessly transitioned to the community college baccalaureate program introduced by Houston Community College that summer.

High-quality community college baccalaureates offer students a local, accessible, affordable, and workforce-oriented path to degree completion at the same institution in which they completed their prior credentials. In fact, many of the students we interviewed believed that community college programs are on par with four-year institutions.

Jazmin Even Dorra is pursuing an Associate of Science degree in Applied Artificial Intelligence at Miami Dade College.
Source: Jazmin Even Dorra

Jazmin Even Dorra is currently pursuing an associate’s degree at Miami Dade College, which offers a stackable credential pathway leading up to a bachelor’s degree in AI. She was very receptive to potentially completing her bachelor’s degree at the community college one day.

As she puts it, “Students should be more open to bachelor opportunities here at community colleges because the level is not less. It’s actually maybe even better or equal as any other institution and the opportunities that you get coming out from a community college are exactly the same as you are going to find in many other institutions.”

2. Strong employer partnerships and hands-on experience improve student learning

William Glover is pursuing an Associate of Applied Science degree in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning at Chandler-Gilbert Community College
Source: William Glover

Many community colleges have built their AI programs in direct partnership with employers, and it shows. The students we interviewed seek opportunities to gain experience working with employers and understanding the rapidly shifting AI landscape. Miami Dade recently opened its second AI center, where Even Dorra secured a position as a lab technician. Reflecting on her classroom experiences, “I’m learning all this, but it’s such a new field,” she said. “How do I apply it into an actual job?”

Her role in the lab helps fill the gap between academic learning and practical experience. She gains firsthand exposure to cutting-edge projects daily, including hands-on work through the college’s partnership with Amazon Web Services. Even Dorra told us that she gained a stronger understanding of real-world AI applications from frequent interactions with employers who visited the center.

Similarly, Shahzad pointed out, “There are big companies who are collaborating with us, donating their stuff. They’re waiting for us to graduate.” Industry partnerships help schools develop employer-aligned programs while also providing students with access points for future employment opportunities. It was through Houston Community College’s partnership with Intel that Shahzad was able to participate and ultimately win the top national prize in the 2023 Intel AI Global Impact Festival, an annual convening for academics, policymakers, and next-generation innovators to explore how technology can address real-world challenges.

Joshua Sinnott completed an Associate of Applied Science degree in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning at Chandler-Gilbert Community College
Source: Joshua Sinnott

William Glover takes associate’s degree-level courses in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning courses at Chandler-Gilbert Community College (CGCC). He says his professors encourage students to initiate and lead AI projects. As a full-time quality assurance employee at a manufacturing company, “I’m able to take these AI and Machine Learning program classes and tailor them to the specific needs that I am dealing with in my job,” he told us.

Joshua Sinnott’s journey reinforces Glover’s perspective. Sinnott previously earned a bachelor's degree in psychology and worked various jobs for several years. Seeing opportunity as AI impacts the labor market, he joined CGCC’s first class of AI students.

Sinnott values the practical projects he has worked on as a student, believing that employers prioritize “the things you worked on, compared to what the degree says.” His capstone project and winning in the 2022 Intel AI Global Impact Festival added tangible projects to his portfolio. It helped him land multiple job offers, including Google and Wells Fargo—he is currently working at Visalaw.ai, an AI startup.

3. Community college AI programs offer opportunity for bachelor’s degree holders

Community college AI programs offer pathways for new entrants into the innovation economy but also create opportunities for upskilling and reskilling for bachelor’s degree holders.

Fisayo Jassey-Jabarr is pursuing an Associate of Applied Science degree in Artificial Intelligence at Houston Community College
Source: Fisayo Jassey-Jabarr

With a bachelor’s degree and a decade of humanitarian work experience under his belt, Fisayo Jassey-Jabarr was careful when deciding to return to school. As an international student, he viewed college as an investment and found Houston Community College a more affordable option than four-year universities with more support for students.

Jabarr explained, “Community college levels the playing ground because you have access, you have ability, you can plan. And whatever degree you get, you can work it.” Similarly, Sinnott told us how the scarcity of specialized AI programs at four-year colleges and the affordability of community colleges made Chandler-Gilbert an obvious choice when exploring AI offerings.

New America has documented a similar sentiment shared by employers and students regarding community college-level job training in other emerging technology fields, such as biotechnology.

4. AI is a rapidly developing field, and precise alignment to employer needs is key

As demand for AI skills and jobs grows, Igor Lucic is determined to succeed in the innovation economy. He already knew how to code, but he felt that his job opportunities were limited without a degree. Despite employers dropping degree requirements, the hiring of workers without degrees is stagnant.

However, he faced the challenge of limited AI options at the time and found community colleges to be articulate in what they have to offer in terms of applied education.

Reflecting on his search, he noted, “AI programs at four-year institutions are 'murky' because it’s a race for them to develop their own program, and it takes a lot to develop a brand new degree there.”

Igor Lucic is pursuing an Associate of Applied Science degree in Artificial Intelligence at Houston Community College
Source: Igor Lucic

As such, he found himself at the right time and place with HCC’s AI program, where he is completing his associate’s degree. Lucic discussed how traditional programs at four-year universities appeared to be more rigid and commended the HCC model for being light and adaptable. “The AI program that we have is very specifically attuned to what’s going on,” he said, emphasizing how AI education must remain responsive to industry trends and demands to adequately prepare students for the dynamic challenges of the AI landscape.

Sinnott added, “Being up to date on what’s happening out there is important, and I think that’s where a lot of community colleges can pilot a little bit quicker.” As AI education develops, community colleges are uniquely positioned to offer accessible and affordable employer-aligned programs that prepare students for the evolving demands of the field.

When we asked students if they had any advice for community colleges that are considering establishing their own AI program, Glover said, “You couldn’t do it soon enough.”

As AI education expands at community colleges, student voices matter. This blog captures a first look at a subset of students in AI programs. Colleges should consider incorporating these insights and conducting focus groups and surveys with current and prospective students as they build out their AI offerings.