Photo Credit: Chad Hagen for The Chronicle

Community Colleges Are Critical to the Innovation Economy

The CHIPS and Science Act is a great opportunity for two-year institutions.

This essay was first published in The Chronicle and is excerpted from a new Chronicle special report, "The Research Driven University."

The Biden administration’s CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 was more than a piece of legislation meant to fortify the nation’s semiconductor industry. It was a bipartisan, multibillion-dollar re-embrace of American industrial policy that has major implications for how the nation funds research and development, how that R&D leads to job creation, and how we align the development of technology and talent in higher education. Community colleges can and should play an important role in this effort — particularly in job training — and many are already doing so. But they need more support to ensure that CHIPS, which stands for Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors, is successful.

While research universities will always be essential partners in federal research efforts, community colleges are critical to meet the needs of the innovation economy’s labor market. Given their diverse student bodies, they can also help ensure that the work force in emerging industries more closely reflects the nation’s demographics, avoiding the racial and gender inequality that still plagues Silicon Valley today.

The CHIPS and Science Act includes $52.7 billion to bolster America’s leadership in the semiconductor industry and in other areas of research, manufacturing, and work-force development. The act was a response to national-security concerns raised by the nation’s reliance on foreign chip production, the United States’ slipping behind on measures of R&D competitiveness, and supply-chain issues that became especially stark during the pandemic.

It’s no small feat for community colleges to train students for jobs that have only barely come into existence, jobs that center on technologies like AI or quantum computing, which businesses are only beginning to understand and adopt. Colleges need aid for faculty development, equipment purchases, training in how to use job-market datastackable credentials, expanded student wraparound services, and funding for staff members who can serve as liaisons between colleges and regional innovation ecosystems.

So how can community colleges secure this needed support? CHIPS created a few new federal programs to strengthen participation. It’s a dizzying list, but it’s important to understand the breadth of government investments enabled by CHIPS.”

Most CHIPS funding is coordinated through the National Institute of Standards and Technology, within the U.S. Department of Commerce, and is not allocated directly to colleges. However, CHIPS also established the first new directorate at the National Science Foundation in over 30 years, for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships. Known as TIP, the new directorate is designed to accelerate the translation of federal research investments into new technologies, jobs, and pathways to those jobs, especially around 10 technology focus areas Congress enshrined in CHIPS.

It’s no small feat for community colleges to train students for jobs that have only barely come into existence.

CHIPS also established the Commerce Department’s Regional Technology and Innovation Hubs program, which, with the new directorate’s Regional Innovation Engines program, represent the largest federal investments in regional innovation in American history.

As the nation’s main research-and-development agency, the NSF will play a critical role in supporting community colleges. Fortunately, they have been top of mind as the agency has leaned into its CHIPS-enabled role as a catalyst for regional innovation. In one of his first public interviews (with New America, where I work on education and labor issues), Erwin Gianchandani, the inaugural head of the NSF’s TIP directorate, highlighted a greater need to support community colleges’ job-training efforts in today’s innovation economy. A year later, the NSF had taken laudable steps to deliver on that promise.

Sethuraman (Panch) Panchanathan, the NSF’s director, said in an email that the agency remains committed to creating opportunities for all Americans, adding: “That includes specialized training at community and technical colleges, as well as pathways for talent to pursue graduate degrees.”

In the first year of CHIPS, the NSF started a $30-million grant program, Experiential Learning for Emerging and Novel Technologies, to finance work-based learning partnerships in emerging technology fields. Under the program, community colleges and other regional drivers of work-force development join employers and nonprofit groups dedicated to technology-oriented economic development to offer internships, experiential learning, and other work experience.

MiraCosta College, in California, was awarded such a grant, to expand access to internships and apprenticeships in the biomanufacturing sector. The college, which had already established one of the first community-college baccalaureate programs in biomanufacturing, joined the nonprofit Institute for the Future to offer a series of “futurist thinking” workshops designed to strengthen the college’s ability to anticipate and respond to emerging tech needs.

“Investments like these don’t just fund programs; they fuel innovation,” Sunita Cooke, MiraCosta’s president, said in an email.

While community colleges like MiraCosta have institutionalized approaches to planning for future jobs, most colleges will need support to get there. That’s why the NSF has also established a $20-million grant program, Enabling Partnerships to Increase Innovation Capacity, to help community colleges and minority-serving institutions contribute to innovation economies.

Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana at Fort Wayne, in partnership with four other colleges, won an Enabling Partnerships grant to institutionalize the use of the Business & Industry Leadership Team model of employer engagement. The BILT model emphasizes strong collaboration between employers and colleges that train workers in the innovation economy.

Such collaboration is key. Intel and Amazon have invested directly in building the capacity of community colleges to teach students AI skills, and as a result, community colleges in most states now have AI-focused offerings.

In Arizona, Pima Community College began one of the first certificate programs for autonomous-vehicle specialists. Ian Roark, Pima’s vice chancellor for work-force development and innovation, encourages colleges to be more proactive about building partnerships with employers.

The future of community-college participation in CHIPS looks bright.

Antonio Delgado, Miami Dade College’s first vice president for innovation and technology partnerships, has led much of the college’s trailblazing in AI education. He encourages colleges to work with both local employers and large industry leaders to understand big-picture trends before they hit labor markets.

The future of community-college participation in CHIPS looks bright. The innovative approach of institutions like these, the enterprising steps taken by the NSF to help community colleges, and tech companies’ willingness to invest and form partnerships all reflect a recognition of community colleges’ potential to meet work-force needs identified by the CHIPS Act.

Community colleges are America’s hidden economic engines, an argument made in a 2023 book with that title. It’s time they became more visible and better empowered to play their crucial role in the innovation economy.

Shalin Jyotishi is the senior adviser for education, labor, and the future of work at New America. He leads New America’s Initiative on the Future of Work and the Innovation Economy.

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