Higher ed must promote ‘wide’ learning, racial equity, in preparing students for the work of the future
Human Work and Learning

Higher ed must promote ‘wide’ learning, racial equity, in preparing students for the work of the future

A dark factory floor with 3 large robotic manufacturing arms painted in bright orange. A man at the edge of the photo can be seen controlling the arms with a tablet device.

See more on the work of the future—and how people can find and keep good jobs in an age of smart machines and artificial intelligence—in the new Jamie Merisotis book “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines.”

When people ask what kind of learning we need to offer students in this age of smart machines, I start with a one-word answer: wide.

That is, learning must be wide in these three important ways:

  • Content: We must offer a wide range of subjects, with a wide range of options for earning credentials.
  • People: Justice and the talent requirements of the future demand that we serve a wide, diverse group of students. Racial justice and equity must be at the center of this growth.
  • Time: Learning must take place in a wide time context, over the course of people’s entire lifetimes. This is essential to human work: learning that implies a virtuous cycle that must be repeated many times over a worker’s lifecycle—not simply once.

As a guest in a recent Texas Tribune seminar called “Price vs. Cost vs. Value: The Evolving Economics of Higher Ed,” I had a great discussion with Tribune CEO Evan Smith and Archie Holmes, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs in the University of Texas system, about this and other subjects.

I told them that as artificial intelligence, automation, and technology change the nature of work, we need to prepare people for doing the work that only humans can do. So higher education must help grow our capacity for communication, collaboration, empathy, and ethics.

The pandemic has helped create what the Chronicle of Higher Education has called perhaps the most painful period in the history of higher ed. Some early effects include:

  • Lower enrollment nationally, particularly in community colleges and among Black students. When the economy declines, typically community college enrollment goes up. This is the first time in modern memory that we have seen this shift. If you look at the changes in the job market—losses in hospitality, retail and related areas—typically a lot of those workers would have gone to community colleges to learn new skills and get back into the labor market as quickly as possible. If that trend doesn’t happen, I think there’s a long tail in terms of COVID, its recessionary effects and its impact on building the human work ecosystem we need going forward.
  • Tuition’s impact. Rates went up an average of 1 percent nationally this year, the lowest in three decades. Still, the differential between community college and four-year college tuition is gigantic. Tuition costs an average of $3,700 a year at community colleges compared with $37,000 at four-year institutions. It’s fair to ask: Are you getting 10 times the value? And during COVID, is online learning comparable to in-person instruction? Higher ed no longer has a monopoly on talent development, but we need a strong, vibrant higher ed sector to meet the talent needs of society as well as our economic and social goals.
  • The digital divide must be closed. COVID has shown us that you can have high-quality learning online—maybe more so than we thought. But there are also limitations. Everyone must have good access to information.

There’s a rising demand for talent in American society. Higher education has to be strong and vibrant to do that. The sector can’t keep delivering the way it’s been delivering at a price point that puts many people, particularly students of color and low-income people, out of the equation.

As I noted, I am the first person in my family to get a college degree. I was lucky. My parents didn’t know what college was—except that we were going. Higher education ended poverty in my family forever. So I use myself as an example of what’s possible. But also, it has to be said that luck is not a good societal strategy. We need a plan, and the plan I’ve spent my entire career working on is to get a lot more people—a lot more diverse people—into and through these higher learning environments. That’s what’s going to power our economy and strengthen our democracy.

Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation. His new book, “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines,” is now available. 

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