Community Colleges Are Key to an Equitable Future of Work in America

Article In The Thread
First Lady Jill Biden briefed on biotech workforce investments at Forsyth Technical Community College, Jan 26, 2024, Winston-Salem, NC.
Official White House Photo by Erin Scott
July 9, 2024

The tech workforce’s notorious lack of diversity in racial, gender, and socioeconomic terms not only breeds biased technologies and talent shortages but also deepens social divides. To address immediate workforce needs and unlock the potential of the high-tech sector, we must break down barriers to entry. The federal government has begun to unlock an overlooked yet promising solution: community college training in emerging technologies as a catalyst for inclusive innovation and workforce development that better reflects the diversity of America beyond the homogeneity of Silicon Valley.

Thanks to the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act of 2022, community colleges are empowered to play a critical role in the innovation economy.

While community college has been pivotal in providing accessible, affordable, and workforce-oriented career preparation in healthcare, skilled trades, manufacturing, and transportation industries, nationwide, community colleges are also evolving to meet the workforce needs of today and tomorrow. They are increasingly focused on training for emerging technology sectors—offering certificates, associate’s degrees, and even applied baccalaureates (available in 24 states) in fields like AI, autonomous vehicles, green energy, and advanced manufacturing—and, as a result, creating inclusive pathways to careers that define the future of skilled technical work.

Community colleges are pivotal for a significant portion of working-class Americans and people of color who were excluded from the 20th-century innovation economy. Around 41 percent of all undergraduate students attend a community college, and 65 percent come from families earning less than $50,000 a year. And despite a historic low in confidence for higher education overall, 85 percent of respondents in New America's Varying Degrees survey recognize the significant value community colleges provide. The potential of community colleges is evident, and the U.S. National Science Foundation’s expanded federal support has been pivotal.

Federal Support for Community College Innovation

The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) is America’s government agency dedicated to advances in science, technology, and STEM education. Among its many contributions, a significant milestone achieved through the CHIPS & Science Act was the establishment of the Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships Directorate in 2022—the NSF’s first new division in over 30 years. This division has been pivotal in enhancing the agency’s investment in community college training, particularly focusing on emerging technology sectors.

Under this new initiative, the division’s new Enabling Partnerships to Increase Innovation Capacity (EPIIC) program is helping to build the capacity of community colleges to meet our emerging tech workforce needs. At Harper College, Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, and City Colleges of Chicago, new programs in quantum computing are now launching. NSF’s new Experiential Learning for Emerging and Novel Technologies (ExLENT) program is supporting MiraCosta College and Montgomery College in expanding internships and apprenticeships in the biomanufacturing and microelectronics sectors.

“Community colleges are pivotal for a significant portion of working-class Americans and people of color who were excluded from the 20th-century innovation economy.”

To bridge these initiatives with broader federal support, the White House and NSF have collaboratively championed initiatives that underscore community colleges' pivotal role in fostering inclusive innovation and workforce development.

The White House and NSF Drive Innovation through Community Colleges

Earlier this year, NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan and First Lady Jill Biden, a veteran of community college education, announced the inaugural winners of the NSF Engines awards—the most extensive federal investment in regional R&D and technological innovation since Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act of 1862, which created land-grant universities. These NSF Engines drive applied R&D, technology development, and workforce training to grow new industries and jobs in advanced technology sectors, with community colleges integral to all inaugural Regional Innovation Engines.

The announcement took place not at Stanford University or MIT but at Forsyth Tech Community College in North Carolina, underscoring a new reality: community colleges are critical to NSF Engines and shaping an inclusive future of work and innovation economy. At a New America event, Panchanathan underlined the importance of community colleges in training the skilled technical workforce, stating, “None of the Regional Innovation Engines will be successful if we don't have the capacity of the skilled technical workforce unleashed at full force and full scale, everywhere.”

As agencies like NSF promote scientific and technological innovation, policymakers must continue to boost investment to empower community colleges in creating equitable pathways to quality jobs in the evolving innovation economy.

You May Also Like

Community Colleges, Future of Work, and the Innovation Economy (Education Policy): Explore our fuller work on how community colleges drive the innovation economy through education and workforce development.

Building a Better Workforce Community College (Education Policy, 2023): Community colleges, bolstered by federal initiatives like the CHIPS Act, are transforming into hubs for training diverse workforces in emerging tech fields.

Getting First-Generation, Low-Income Students the Support They Deserve (The Thread, 2023): First-generation, low-income students face unique challenges, and we need systems that can do more to support these students once pandemic-related emergency benefits expire.

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