As Demand for Tech Skills Surges, Is College Really Right for All?

By Leon Kaye
Nov 29, 2017 5:00 PM ET
Blog

A Georgetown University study suggests 65 percent of all jobs in the U.S. will require more than a high school education by 2020. Hence it is clear that much work needs to be done to narrow the educational achievement and economic opportunity gaps in the U.S. In addition, there is the sobering statistic that only 9 percent of low-income students earn a Bachelor’s degree by the age of 24, in contrast to 77 percent of their higher-income peers.

The question remains – is college right for everyone? Education leaders recently met during the recent Dreamforce conference in San Francisco to talk about how post-secondary learning could and should evolve this century – including one organization that is disrupting the traditional academic model.

The challenge is one that Dr. Byron Breland, President of San Jose Community College (SJCC), faces day-in and day-out. “Our community college of 10,000 students is critical for the other side of Silicon Valley,” Dr. Breland told an audience during the Dreamforce Idea Forum. “Exposure to community colleges and non-traditional schools is so important to raise awareness and expand access.”

Dr. Breland was quick to point out the importance community colleges have in students’ upward mobility. Graduation from SJCC hovers between 20 to 25 percent, but he noted that ratio hardly tells the whole story. After all, students may enroll for a semester, only to drop out shortly after because that one class may have helped them score a higher-paying job. “Success isn’t just about finishing the degree, but overcoming obstacles,” said Dr. Breland.

Other students simply face too many challenge in their daily life to push forward on their education goals. “Some of our students are a flat tire away from dropping out,” Dr. Breland added.

Meanwhile, we keep hearing about how more and more jobs will require some coding skills; and of course, the data show that jobs in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) can provide that ticket to a stable income and at minimum, a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. The current four-year academic model, however, is not practical for many students. Private schools also impose barriers because of their hefty price tag. “We hear we don’t have enough coders,” continued Dr. Breland, “but such schools cost up to $20,000, so partnerships are important.”

One answer to this ongoing dilemma is in the westernmost neighborhood of Queens, New York City.

C4Q (Coalition for Queens), is disrupting technology education for the better. The non-profit in Long Island City offers an intensive 10-month coding program tailored for low-income students as well as others who come from underserved communities. In addition, C4Q partners with various technology companies, which in turn has allowed graduates to find jobs at companies such as Kickstarter, IBM and Capital One.

Students who have graduated from C4Q’s program earned an average of $18,000 a year before they enrolled. After graduation, their annual income averages about $85,000.

Jukay Hsu, a U.S. Army veteran who is founder and CEO of C4Q, urged the business community and academic sector to embark on similar solutions to expand educational opportunities for those who can benefit the most.

“Working with companies and going beyond strict requirements for degrees are important to expand STEM opportunities to more students,” Hsu explained to a Dreamforce audience, “and we need to create alternatives to the traditional college track if we are going to extend access to education.”

During the C4Q track, the program’s current 144 students have the opportunity to learn web development, iOS or Android. But the courses are not just focused on coding; the way in which the classes are designed serve to help students adjust at their new companies upon completion. “Teamwork-based, project-based courses can help students prepare for a professional career,” insisted Hsu.

That approach resonated with SJCC’s Dr. Breland. “It’s time to go beyond job skills and share experiences & ideas about the culture of work,” he said.

As technical skills become more important to just about every job, including even those in manufacturing, watch for more out-of-the-box technology education solutions to emerge. Companies will also become more open to hiring tech workers who do not have that four-year degree, especially when considering today’s political climate – one that frowns upon outsourcing and offshoring jobs.

SJCC strives to fill that gap between the growth of tech jobs and the dearth of workers who can fill them. One program is Technest, a partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Technest’s curriculum is based on Python, a programming language developed by MIT computer scientists. The course of study is tailored to meet the needs of students who cannot or will not enroll in a traditional academic program. Courses are available in classrooms or online, and opportunities for peer-to-peer learning are also available. Over 26,000 students have benefited from the program, 40 percent of whom are Latino; 54 percent of Technest’s students have been women.

Technology programs such as those run by C4Q and the SJCC-MIT partnership harness both new and old techniques that are important to students’ professional growth and development: while the latest digital tools help these students learn, they also thrive, due to the professional mentoring that goes hand-in-hand with these organizations’ drive to make STEM education more equitable and accessible that ever before.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

Image credit: C4Q