Why We Must Rebuild America’s Competency Infrastructure

While we worry about crumbling bridges and buckling roadways, there is another infrastructure in deep need of reconstruction: the one that supports the development of the American mind.

Three Infrastructures: Physical, Cyber & Competency

The Web infrastructure has rocketed us into cyberspace where we live second by second, but the information highway in cyberspace never fulfilled its promise of educating and training more of us for the ever-changing world.

As we rebuild the country's physical infrastructure, it will not be to re-create the past cement, asphalt and steel structures alone, but to invent or stimulate the future in that infrastructure. It is imaginable that re-built roads and bridges will have sophisticated sensors that will help self-driving cars, sense weather or even tectonic stresses, measure commercial volumes, or who knows what.

Introducing "Competency Infrastructure"

When it comes to our "Competency Infrastructure," all attempts to modernize it, even with technology, just recreate the same institutional infrastructure we have always had, embellished with modern branding, tag lines, and programs. The failure to imagine and execute on a future vision in education and training has cost us dearly.

The consequences are everywhere. While we can say the economy has not been better for a long time, the subtext is clear: full employment does not mean everyone is employed or employable. The American machinery that is working well is systematically producing a substantial and growing underclass, a tiny, very wealthy privileged class, a terribly diminished middle class, and a nearly hopeless lower class that does not have adequate education, training, or knowledge to function locally let alone participate in the global economy.
Education and training are like inefficient automobile fuel consumption in the old economy. Today, even the hybrid vehicle is not enough. It is still a car. Like transportation, consistently moving more American minds further along will require inventiveness that surpasses current imagination. Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk did not stop with their first goals — books and hybrids — they stretched to all of commerce, cheap energy, battery production, and routine operations in space.

Competencies — whether skills, credentials or degrees — are what operate the information economy. The ability to know which ones to acquire when, and the ability to acquire them over a lifetime is essential. 100 years of brick and cement infrastructure on over a thousand two-year institutional campuses cannot easily be turned into all the mental fuel we need.

Ready for Change

It is time for the two-year education and training sector to be re-thought, re-engineered, and re-invented as America's competency infrastructure.

When the new administration readies its agenda, there will be more than physical infrastructure to fix. An overhaul of our competency infrastructure needs serious attention. The nation's publicly-funded regional community colleges are routinely asked to do all the heavy lifting in terms of training for college and work, but are given few of the necessary tools to do so. This needs to be rethought.

Adaptability of community colleges is one of their hallmarks. Theoretically, this means they can adapt to employment challenges, income inequality, the advent of data-driven information systems, and the "app" culture of students and adult learners.

While there are stellar colleges with high touch and strong programs to engage and retain students, those are rare. Community colleges are strapped financially, constrained, and have little ability to fund or sustain anything but incremental change. However, historically and periodically, the colleges change to adapt to much broader social and economic needs.

It will not be the first time the two-year colleges have changed. Just as they are a community's or region's utility infielders, sensing and morphing with changing local needs, they have significantly evolved over time. Starting in 1901, Joliet Junior College (IL) emerged from an experiment between the then president of University of Chicago and then superintendent of Joliet Township High School. The intent was to provide the early years of college where young people grow up.

With the GI Bill of Rights in 1944, junior colleges went into higher gear preparing returning vets with their GEDs and the first years of college. In the burgeoning post-WWII economy, technical and occupational training became more important. By the 1960s, accessibility was the goal. But as civil strife reached its peak, so did the population explosion of baby boomers needing affordable college options nearby. Shortly afterwards, the modern community college proliferated nationally, intent on serving both regional academic and occupational needs.

Time for Change

It has now been 25 years since the American Association of Community Colleges (www.aacc.nche.edu) dropped any reference to junior colleges in its name. It has been almost 50 years since the League for the Innovation in the Community College (www.League.org) was established with a mission to provide continuous innovation in the community college space. The intervening years have seen the fortification of both academic and occupational programs. A number of colleges, as they often call themselves now, offer bachelor’s degrees, and many offer first rate, highly-technical occupational programs.

These trends are encouraging, but they are not situated on the information highway, or part of a sophisticated cyber-infrastructure. While online courses are offered and education technology is utilized, these are add-ons to the existing campus, changes in degree but not changes in kind.

Similarly, the Federal Government and national foundations have invested billions to stimulate competency-based education, skills training, and alignment between regional employer needs and community college occupational programs. These substantial projects are without the adequate investment – not just in money but in wise reorganization and in the development of cyber infrastructure – necessary to see transformation to a competency infrastructure that would become the next evolution in the adaptable two-year sector’s historical evolution.

Reinvent & Reinvest in the Community College Competency Infrastructure

The hope and cure for education and training, likely falsely placed but well-intentioned, has been in the country's 1,100 or so public community colleges, approximately 600 private two-year institutions and another few hundred two-year degree granting institutions. This is where the majority of America goes to get an education or training, and where many fail to finish or find work. There are arguments about the numbers, but however they are counted, failure is everywhere: in the public costs, the unrepaired lives, the lack of economic returns to families and society.

There are sterling and even gold examples of success, but they come at the cost of the failure to succeed for millions who attend community college.

The two-year college academic and occupational training institutions can develop into the nation's "Competency Infrastructure," charged with preparing students for bachelor's and advanced degrees, for occupational training for current work, and for certification in a much more accurate and effective way. The physical infrastructure of these colleges is challenged, but competency infrastructure must now be envisioned with the potential to drive wholesale change.  This is possible though not in the traditional ways.

Where Would Change Come From?

This kind of change cannot come from educators, accreditors, government programs, education foundations, publishers, or technology vendors alone since they are the financial beneficiaries of the system, not its stakeholders. They have given us the system we have.

There may have been the perception that the top community college administrators and their program directors, who work hard and with real intent, could suddenly operate like Bezos and Musk.

Those with that intent, innovative drive, and charismatic spark more often than not find themselves facing the blank stare of trustees, community leaders, and faculty.

Change must come from the outside or in league with the actual stakeholders they are intended to serve: students, employers and further education.

Reinvention, Not Refurbishing

Making community colleges free is a welcome goal, but by itself will not change the performance of colleges or the preparation of students and adult learners for workplace or higher education success. The infrastructure of further education requires a new architecture for success in today's and tomorrow's world. The beginnings for this are already present, but to make these a reality, public-private commitment must go beyond comfort and the familiar to new a scale, one that is already inherent in our consumer world online, and in apps.

(1) While competencies and skills are the agreed-upon occupational coin of the realm, the work to make them real in overall practice is not funded as a national priority and the efforts are still sequestered in the traditional community college culture. Tech-oriented, data-enabled, and research-focused outsiders need to come inside the tent and help define the systems hand in hand with the colleges that are ready to change.

(2) Every higher education institution in the country has the knee-jerk rhetoric of being student-centered, but none truly is. Institutions must partner with students and adult learners the way Facebook, LinkedIn or Amazon do. There are no technologies servicing campuses to do this, no owner in the college infrastructure to own this change. Yet, the ability to digitally tether students in forward-looking apps is here. Students and adult learners deserve a single app into the community college they attend.

(3) Employers complain the most about not getting the talent they need yet they do the least to help change this in a systematic way. Employers have a mostly free ride for training from community colleges that are largely financed by public funds. Employers need to put a financial and corporate oar in the water and help build the competency infrastructure in which they are both participants and beneficiaries. It is here where the competency infrastructure investment might have the largest payout.


Gordon Freedman is a visionary leader in the fields of education technology and online learning who advocates for broad-based change across the K-to-Career spectrum.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn as "Building America's Competency Infrastructure."

www.NLET.org is a West Coast nonprofit devoted to gaining processing parity between consumer apps, e-commerce and big science and the academic space. We value your input as we build this new nonprofit.

The GradsofLifeVoice Forbes team provides thought leadership, research and expert commentary on innovative talent pipelines and related issues such as the skills gap, income inequality, workforce diversity, and the business case for employment pathways. We seek to change employers’ perceptions of young adults with atypical resumes from social liabilities to economic assets. This post was additionally featured here.


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