Navigating the Future of Higher Education: How Mohawk Valley Community College is Preparing Students for Success in a VUCA World

note: The following is adapted from an OpEd printed in the Daily Sentinel on Jan. 5, 2023.

What is “college?” Is it the ticket to a liveable wage? Is it the secret to social capital and the networks of the upper class? Or is it an economic game full of false promises, trap doors, and deferred dreams buried in piles of student debt? The short answer is, “It depends.” The longer answer involves society’s inaccurate habit of promoting a Bachelor’s degree as the ONLY path toward economic self-reliance (when less than 25% of Oneida County adults have completed a four-year degree or higher). While the one-size fits all path to college has worked for some, it has been a disappointing failure for many because successful educational paths accommodate individuals’ uniqueness. Total student loan debt in this country is rapidly approaching $2 trillion with countless adults wrestling with the choices they made when pursuing a college degree.

We live in a VUCA world (one characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) where societal and technological changes are disrupting higher education in ways that have disrupted sectors of the economy over the past 15 years. Higher education is finally experiencing similar upheaval through a significant rise in newfound competition from non-academic providers offering thousands of courses at no or low cost with convenient online delivery platforms and niche for-profit providers offering targeted skill-based programs.

The disruption of the higher education landscape is happening at a time of unprecedented worker shortages impacting nearly every industry. The confluence of a multi-generational decline in the U.S. birthrate, baby boomers retiring in record number, generational wealth among White populations creating a record number of part-time/gig workers, a 30-year political deadlock on immigration reform, and record numbers of post-COVID workers on the sidelines has created a demographic drought where the available labor force simply is not adequate to satisfy workforce demand. As a result, it is quite likely that over the next decade any job that can be automated will be, which will usher in an age where human-centric skills such as interpersonal mastery and creativity are supreme.

To prepare for this future, MVCC has implemented a strengths-based case management advising system where students connect with a single point of contact – one person – who will be their educational guide helping them discover their strengths and connect them to faculty advisors, academic interventions, and assistance with overcoming transportation barriers, as well as food and housing insecurities. We are simplifying complexities and providing clarity in the chaos through the establishment of multi-pronged pathways to economic self-reliance.

As the largest higher education provider between Albany and Syracuse, serving 8,439 individual credit students last year, MVCC is focused on developing clear and extended career pathways for our students. We have developed stackable micro-credentials in a variety of programs that lead to immediate jobs and have fostered transfer partnerships with four-year colleges to create abundant paths to further, non-redundant training, career advancement, and degrees. Additionally, our fast-track programs minimize the time to acquire the necessary skills for jobs that aren’t soon to be automated and that “stack” into larger certificates and degrees in various extended career pathways. It’s important to note that our career pathways start early with career exploration for youth. Last year, MVCC served more than 2,000 local kids through programs such as Career Camps, Young Entrepreneurs Academy (YEA!), FIRST Tech Challenge robotics leagues and competitions, and pre-college programs like STEP, GEAR UP, and Upward Bound.

MVCC offers a wide range of technical programs that lead to good wages upon graduation. We are expanding enrollments in our nursing and surgical technology programs in addition to our highly successful respiratory care, radiology technology, and health information programs. Furthermore, with the support of our Oneida County sponsor, NYS Empire State Development, and Senator Schumer’s Office, MVCC will be completely redeveloping our Science and Technology building on the Utica Campus into a training center showpiece for the region to provide the next generation of welders, machinists, HVAC and electrical technicians, as well as the critical regional workforce for the rapidly expanding semiconductor/nanotechnology industry.

While MVCC has many technical programs, roughly half of our degree-seeking students are enrolled in transfer programs. They are looking to start their college education in a supportive environment while they build their academic skills or simply give themselves time to gain the confidence in the strengths they already possess and build their academic muscles for further greatness upon transition. This is where those extended career pathways are helpful in lighting the way for someone to receive their paralegal certificate, obtain a liberal arts Associate’s degree and transfer to get a Bachelor’s degree in English before applying to law school; or taking anatomy and physiology, dissecting human cadavers through our partnership with Upstate Medical University, before transferring to Cornell University with junior standing for a degree in biology before applying to medical school; receiving their MVCC degree in Engineering Science to gain access to significant transfer scholarships before moving on to a four-year program; or getting a Cybersecurity degree from MVCC’s regional center of cyber excellence supported by the National Security Agency (NSA) before transferring to SUNY Poly or Utica University. The opportunities really are limitless and MVCC has created the infrastructure to help people of all ages and backgrounds sort through the clutter and light a clear path toward a focused and successful future.

MVCC is deeply connected with employers throughout the six-county Mohawk Valley region, implementing creative partnerships to address workforce development needs from educational pipeline opportunities to customized training programs. Employers are increasingly interested in finding reliable workers who have a base set of relevant skills and want to learn and grow with them as their organizations evolve. While it is becoming less important whether people receive credentials in credit or non-credit format, MVCC continues to find ways to innovate through creative non-credit programs and partnerships with local employers to provide our region with a skilled workforce and educated citizenry.

As the fiscal agent for SUNY Apprenticeships in advanced manufacturing, culinary, and information technology fields, MVCC is also partnering with the NYS Department of Labor and regional employers to launch “earn & learn training programs” that combine college classes and on-the-job training to both create coherent conduits for employees to earn promotion and increased wages as well as affording employers with the consistent talent base that they so desperately need. And for those that want to be their own boss, MVCC is the regional hub of the entrepreneurial startup ecosystem with our Small Business Development Center and thINCubator serving more than 760 individuals last year through programs and services at the MVCC Center @ Bagg’s Square.

What is “college?” Just like so many aspects of our society, the notion of “college” is acquiring an increasingly individualized, expansive, and amorphous definition but remains increasingly critical for social mobility and career advancement. In our rapidly changing society, lifelong learning is more important than ever. MVCC is prepared to be the learning broker the people of the Mohawk Valley region need to navigate a VUCA world, where having access to the right information, to find the right path, with the right supports, will be essential to attaining personal and community prosperity.