Community Colleges Are Rolling Out AI Programs—With a Boost from Big Tech

Just a few years ago, virtually no community colleges awarded degrees in AI-specific fields. It’s a new world now.

For more than 10 years, John Blackwood tried to convince his employer—Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon—to let him create an artificial intelligence program. The answer was always no. Funds were tight, and Blackwood assumed the college wasn’t yet aware of how big AI would soon become.

Then, during the COVID-19 pandemic, everything changed rapidly. In October 2020, the Oregon Workforce and Talent Development Board released a report on talent development for AI that named community colleges as a vital component for building the workforce, by offering AI certificates, associate degrees, and transfer programs to four-year universities. 

Soon after, Blackwood, an associate professor of computer science and cybersecurity, joined the Intel AI for Workforce program, which provides community colleges with over 700 hours of free content to build AI courses. A year later, Umpqua Community College joined the AI Incubator Network, a partnership among Intel, Dell Technologies, and the American Association of Community Colleges, and was one of 15 community colleges across the country to receive a $40K grant. 

Blackwood would finally get his program.

The Big Idea: As employers increasingly seek out applicants with AI skills, community colleges are well-positioned to train up the workforce. Partnerships with tech companies, like the AI Incubator Network, are helping some colleges get the resources and funding they need to overhaul programs and create new AI-focused ones.

In just a few years, community colleges have put significant effort into developing AI programs and courses. In 2022, the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University published a report on the “latent potential” of community and technical colleges in training the AI workforce of the future. The report analyzed data from 2020 and found that virtually no community and technical colleges awarded degrees or certificates in AI-specific fields. 

Today, the landscape is shifting. Some of the country’s largest community colleges, like the Maricopa County Community College District and Miami Dade College, have made high-profile pushes into offering degrees in AI. And dozens of others from Austin to Umpqua also are investing in new courses and credentials. 

Nevertheless, Diana Gehlhaus, who co-authored the AI workforce report, says the focus of industry and policymakers remains too much on bachelor’s degrees and four-year institutions. 

“There’s still lots of untapped potential,” says Gehlhaus, director for economy at the nonprofit Special Competitive Studies Project. “So much of what we’re seeing in the marketplace is employer inertia to not hire outside of a four-year degree.”

‘Staying Globally Competitive’

Emerging AI curricula run the gamut from general literacy that is embedded in a wide range of courses to full-on degrees that are focused on technical skills. Since ChatGPT hit the scene 18 months ago, generative AI has gotten the most attention, but AI certificate and degree programs also focus on other kinds of machine learning, computer vision, and robotics. The last is a particularly important field in regions with a lot of manufacturing jobs. 

Boost from Big Tech: Roseburg and the region around Umpqua Community College fit that bill. Last fall, Blackwood finally launched a six-course online AI certificate program, with a cohort of 21 students in the intro class.

It’s one of several new community college programs that have grown out of the AI Incubator Network and AI for Workforce program. While only 15 colleges received grants, more than 40 have joined the network to learn from other colleges. And the AI for Workforce program run by Intel now has 110 community college participants. Other tech companies like Google and Amazon Web Services have launched similar programs for community colleges. 

The AI Incubator Network emerged after Intel and Dell approached the American Association of Community Colleges to diversify their workforce and also broaden the companies’ geographical reach. 

“It’s really about staying globally competitive,” says Cristina Ortiz, director of the Digital Readiness Programs in the U.S. region for Intel. “Community colleges have a long history of being that go-to place for people to acquire new skills. Beyond that, they provide access and opportunity to a really broad group of individuals, including folks who have been in underrepresented and underserved communities.”

Gehlhaus says partnerships between tech companies and community colleges are critical for AI workforce development. 

“(The tech companies) are able to provide equipment and hands-on training and employment opportunities for the graduates,” she says. “And they have a say in what the curriculum should look like to be valuable.” 

John Blackwood, an associate professor of computer science and cybersecurity, teaching students in a new AI program at Umpqua Community College. (Courtesy of UCC)

On the Ground: Through the AI Incubator Network and other grants Umpqua Community College has received, Blackwood has hired a former student to help him test out learning material for the new courses. He’s purchased take-home AI hardware kits and AI-powered robots to get his students—especially men, whom he’s seen lag behind the women in his classes in recent years—interested in AI and the career pathways open to them. He’s also learning how to build AI models and work in a new coding language right alongside his students. 

Many of the college’s students live in rural areas where manufacturing jobs dominate, and Blackwood believes it’s particularly important for those students to get ahead of the AI learning curve and use it to their advantage. 

“I think that AI is going to decimate so many fields,” he says. “So I tell my students, if we need 10 cybersecurity people today, in five to seven years, we might need four or five of them. Those four or five who survive must know how to create AI models.”

Blackwood encourages his students to get the certificate and then try to transfer to a four-year institution—likely Oregon State, which has a robust AI and robotics program—to round out their math skills and obtain a bachelor’s. Other community colleges in the state are now reaching out to Blackwood to learn how they, too, can build AI programs. 

AI in English, Math, and Everywhere

In Wisconsin, Chippewa Valley Technical College is keeping an eye on what the AI Incubator Network is producing, though it is not part of the network itself. In response to changing work requirements, the college is overhauling some of its existing programs, including the administrative professional associate’s degree program. Students will soon learn how to use generative AI tools in marketing, scheduling, expense reporting, and data management, among other skills.

Universal Skills: Several other community colleges across the country are also building AI certificate and degree programs. Grand Rapids Community College in Michigan will begin its six-course certificate program this summer, meant for students in any discipline who want to learn how to incorporate AI into their field. The college is also developing an associate degree in AI for those who want to go into computer science and eventually earn a bachelor’s.

With money from the AI Incubator Network grant, the college built a hybrid AI lab with 16 high-speed computer stations. Students as well as community members and business leaders can access the lab in person or remotely to learn more about AI and how they can use it to bolster their work. 

While the equipment has been revolutionary, Kristi Haik, the dean of STEM at the college, says it’s been a challenge to get everyone at the college on board—beyond the computer science department. 

“AI is going to impact every single discipline—English, math, the people who teach automotive,” Haik says. “So how then do you help those instructors incorporate a completely new discipline into their discipline? There’s so much professional development that needs to be done.” 

Tomorrow’s Jobs, but Today’s Students

Another challenge for community colleges has been figuring out what local employers will be looking for in the future in terms of AI skills. The knock on higher education is that it moves too slowly for business—but with businesses themselves still wrapping their heads around AI, some colleges actually risk getting out ahead of the jobs.

In regions with lots of tech jobs and even manufacturing, this is more clear-cut. But in other regions, it’s murky.

Ken Michalek, who is leading the implementation of AI associate degree and certificate programs at Ocean County College in Toms River, New Jersey, says he’s found it difficult to partner with potential employers in the region who might hire the new AI grads. 

“Ocean County tends to be more of an ocean community,” he says. “There’s healthcare down here, but we’re not in an industrial area. Establishing partnerships where we could point these students to after they get a degree, that’s an area where I haven’t made those connections yet.”

The college does, however, have a partnership with a military base in the area, and Michalek used some of the AI Incubator Network grant money to purchase high-speed laptops for students to work on a project with the base. After speaking with a sergeant about the base’s needs, the students built an AI chatbot for Air Force technicians, so they could easily look up maintenance procedures and regulations. 

Martha Parham, the senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges, says one big lesson that has emerged from the partnership with Intel and Dell is that businesses need to be involved to help design curriculum, so that students can learn the exact skills they’ll need to get jobs after they graduate.

“The local business leaders need to be involved to help fill that local workforce pipeline and decide what the salaries would look like in terms of the industry versus the local market,” Parham says. “All of this is required to make a viable certificate program that leads to relevant work for the community, the businesses, and the students.”

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