Anticipating the Future: Following the Lead of Community Colleges


The world of work is changing rapidly, creating new pressures and new opportunities for higher education. It’s critical that university leaders act as conveners, assembling representatives of local industry, nonprofits, and community to do the tough work of anticipating the future for their region—both the threats and the opportunities.

Some community colleges have been doing this extremely well, and other institutions can learn from their example.

The Challenge Before Us

The world now sits on the precipice of a fourth industrial revolution, defined by a range of new technologies that are fusing the physical, digital, and biological worlds. Technological breakthroughs in processing power, artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and more will fundamentally change the way in which we live, work, and interact. Such technologies are poised to destroy millions of current jobs while creating entirely new ones. The stakes are high: researchers at the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute have predicted a 50% chance that machines will be capable of taking over all human jobs in 120 years.

The implications for higher education are staggering. Beyond the job losses, millions of new jobs will simultaneously be created. In fact, it’s estimated that 65% of today’s students in primary school will work in a job that doesn’t yet exist. How do institutions respond to these challenges and opportunities? Higher education, which has a long and successful history adapting to the past three industrial revolutions, is not accustomed to doing so quickly. Unfortunately, the speed of this economic change is happening at unprecedent rates. According to futurist Ray Kurzweil, “we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century – it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).”

These mega-trends are changing the current and future world of work but their impact will not be felt uniformly; while no city or region will be unaffected, 259 cities in the United States contribute to 85% of our GDP. Where you live matters a great deal. Over the last 30 years, cities like Buffalo, Cleveland, and Detroit have seen tremendous declines in their economic output. Conversely, cities like Portland, Orlando, and Sacramento have seen their fortunes rise dramatically.

Some cities are better positioned than others. In fact, the Institute for Spatial Economic Analysis looked at which cities are likely to lose the most jobs due to automation. Among their top 10? Riverside, CA, a city that McKinsey cites has in the last 30 years soared to become the 19th largest in terms of real GDP. In the 4th industrial revolution, it’s likely that fortunes can rise and fall very quickly.

This pending disruption will either create tremendous opportunities for institutions to reassert their value and role in educating the workforce of the future, or it risks making them irrelevant. It is up to all leaders to respond.

To meet this rapid change, higher education leaders must find ways to build their capacity for anticipatory thinking. Institutions must find ways to quickly scan their external environment to identify meaningful trends and convene diverse stakeholders to understand the strategic implications for their institution. Convening diverse stakeholder is key; the future is too complex and moving too quickly for any single leader to plan the way forward. We need more than a lone visionary; we need teams of people thinking about the future and moving quickly to adapt.

Convening the Conversation

Partnering with outside entities and organizations is the key competency that all institutions must develop. The good news is that community colleges offer a long-standing and instructive model for how to do so. Writ large, community colleges have a stellar track record of responding to the changing needs of their local economies. Operating at the lowest cost per student, they have proven the most nimble at launching new programs, sunsetting old ones, and creating real-world learning experiences to best serve the diverse stakeholders in their region: students, employers, community members and taxpayers, government, etc. Responding to demographic and economic changes are in their DNA.

Walla Walla Community College in Southeastern Washington is a great example of this. The town was struggling in the 1990s and 2000s as automation had eliminated a number of farming and manufacturing jobs. Walla Walla Community College created an enology and viticulture program, helping to launch more than 100 wineries in the area. They have also created programs for nursing and for wind energy, spurring new job creation throughout the wider region. Winner of the 2013 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence, Walla Walla Community College exemplifies the value of being proactive, anticipating trends, and moving to respond.  Their leaders do an excellent job of staying connected to employers in the region to understand how to build new programs and update curriculum so that it meets their needs.

Anoka-Ramsey Community College, located in Minneapolis, MN, is another excellent example. In July 2017, they partnered with Academic Impressions to hold an Anticipatory Summit, convening approximately 45 leaders from other community colleges and universities, business executives, nonprofit executives, government leaders, and others to discuss the future of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Area. The summit explored the events, trends and issues that are most likely to impact their region over the next ten years; the immediate result of the summit was a paper offering six recommendations for building anticipatory thinking and leadership capacity in their region.

Anoka-Ramsey’s CFO, Don Lewis, and others recognized how quickly their region is changing and realized that they alone do not have all the answers. However, they knew the most strategic thing they could do was to use their platform to bring others together. According to Lewis, who helped organize the summit, “ARCC will not be an owner of any of the mechanisms and practices we are suggesting—but will act as more of a trusted sponsor or facilitator of these events in the next few years.”

The leaders at Anoka-Ramsey Community College recognized the imperative to lead this conversation. Like most institutions, they have real credibility, strategic relationships in the region, and a window into the changing workforce and economy that can collectively be a catalyst for change and progress. True to their heritage, they decided to leverage their position. It’s not a coincidence that they were chosen as a top 10 finalist for the same prize that Walla Walla won 5 years ago.

You can read a case study describing the findings
of the July 2017 Anticipatory Summit here.

Now is the Time to Start

The Anticipatory Summit convened by Anoka-Ramsey Community College, with the support of Academic Impressions, is replicable for other institutions. Leveraging the unique position and resources of higher-ed institutions to convene these regional conversations is key, because there will be no one roadmap or singular approach for other cities to respond to future risks or opportunities. What will work for the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Area will not work in Salt Lake City, New Orleans, or St. Louis. Each city and region has a different combination of factors that it can capitalize on: infrastructure, workforce, natural resources, environmental concerns, policy, technological innovation, etc. But it’s critical to be proactive. Bringing together diverse groups from within and outside the institution is a great way to connect others to these trends, generate ideas, and initiate action.

We would encourage all higher-ed leaders, at other community colleges as well as at four-year institutions, to follow Anoka-Ramsey’s lead. The future is coming fast—and higher-ed must lead. We invite you to reach out to us about hosting your own anticipatory summit.

You may also be interested in these resources on anticipatory thinking: