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April 2017 Archives

Automation and Higher Education



America's colleges and universities are facing a new reality of increased accountability and scrutiny, particularly in light of the considerable student loan debt in which many students find themselves.

Competing interpretations of the data on the return of student investment in a college education suggest that the wage differential between college educated employees outweigh that of those without a higher education credential even as others question the value of a higher education credential given ballooning student debt. There are also concerns over the length of time it takes to actually attain a degree and declining attainment rates for many underserved students in the nation's community colleges, and 4-year public and private institutions.

We should also note recent findings that more than a third of college students demonstrate no noticeable improvement in critical thinking, writing and complex reasoning skills after four years as an undergraduate. These dynamics suggest the importance of developing talent even as we promote access to opportunities to learn and policies that are sensitive to student financial aid concerns.

This multi-pronged approach has particular resonance given emerging data from the Equality of Opportunity Project, which suggests that student prospects for upward mobility depends on an institution's ability to enroll and prepare well, many low-income students.

These are not the only forces affecting student economic and social mobility. In his farewell address in January 2017, former President Obama said that "the next wave of economic dislocations won't come from overseas," [but] "from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good middle class jobs obsolete."

A January 2017 McKinsey report reinforces the former president's estimates by asserting that "advances in robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning... match or outperform human performance in a range of work activities, including... cognitive capabilities." Indeed, McKinsey indicates that approximately half (emphasis mine) of the activities in the global economy, which we are paid nearly $15 trillion in wages to do, have the potential to be automated by adapting currently available technology.

While automation is not a new phenomenon and we have survived previous disruptive shifts in work (agricultural employment fell from 40% in 1900 to 2% in 2000; employment in manufacturing fell from approximately 25% in 1950 to less than 10% in 2010), McKinsey acknowledges that automation will precipitate "significant labor displacement and could exacerbate a growing skills and employment gap" that currently exists between high and low skill workers. Moreover, this process has the potential to depress wages for low-skill workers if demand is stagnant.

In addition, there is concern that while historically, large scale employment shifts due to technology has created different types of work and new jobs and activities, it may be different this time. Given these estimations, as stakeholders at all levels in the education enterprise, we need to consider relevant and timely changes in curriculam, instruction and assessment that not only develop knowledge, skills and abilities but also the cultivation of habits of mind that encourage flexibility and resilience in the face of unprecedented changes and widening income inequality.

Dr. Bridglall is the Dean of Humanities at Bergen Community College and Fulbright Specialist in Higher Education


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