California Forum

The market doesn’t care about your high school diploma. Prepare for lifelong higher ed

Sam Saeteurn grinds a weld on a test piece in the Welding Technology program at American River College in 2017.
Sam Saeteurn grinds a weld on a test piece in the Welding Technology program at American River College in 2017.

The White House, with its recent executive order establishing the National Council on the American Worker, is recognizing a seismic shift in the world of work, one that California’s community colleges have been focused on in recent years.

Demands placed on workers have permanently and significantly changed. California’s economy requires workers with demonstrable skills and credentials. The shift has been fueled by the relentless pursuit of artificial intelligence and automation. About 60 percent of all occupations have at least 30 percent of constituent work activities that could be automated, according to a recent McKinsey report.

Once, a high school diploma was considered the default credential for entry into the workforce. Today, it has little market value.

What do these changes mean for K-12 education? From my perspective, it means the education pipeline needs to be reimagined and redesigned.

The traditional silos, K-12 and community college, no longer address the demands of our economy. Nor do they address the reality that education can no longer be something that we front-load into the first 25 years of a person’s life. The future of work requires adults to continue to learn and gain skills over a lifetime.

The community colleges’ partnership with K-12 leaders and policymakers has begun to lay the foundation for such a redesign. In the recent budget signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, our colleges can partner with school districts and establish the P-Tech model.

This approach combines high school and two years of community college to create an academy for technology careers. A key component of this model is involving a technology partner, such as IBM, to create a reimagined pipeline of career ready graduates.

P-Tech has shown great success in some of the poorest communities in New York. It also complements the investment made by California in the Career Pathways Trust. This effort created consortia of community colleges, high schools and regional employers to create college and career pipelines for students looking to get into a high demand, living-wage career field.

These examples demonstrate the value of blurring – or in some cases eliminating – the artificial lines between high school and college.

Community colleges are further blurring the line with K-12 by significantly increasing the number of college courses taught in high schools. Known as concurrent or dual enrollment, colleges across the state are partnering with high schools to offer college courses that lead to career certificates or associate degrees. It is not uncommon for a high school graduate to complete an associate degree in addition to earning his or her high school diploma.

Again, we are creating more opportunities for high school graduates to earn industry-valued credentials. Such trends are still in their early stages but community colleges are committed to quickly scaling these efforts so more Californians have access to quality credentials that gain them access to good jobs.

This is the driving ethos of our system’s Vision for Success, which sets bold goals to increase completion rates and eliminate achievement gaps for students who have historically been left behind.

The California Dream was built on the availability of quality public education and access to good paying jobs. That dream is threatened and the solution needs to include a bold new vision for K-14 education.

As the next governor of California considers how to address this challenge, the California Community Colleges stand ready to support such a bold vision and erase the lines that exist between high school and college.

Eloy Ortiz Oakley is chancellor of California Community Colleges. Reach him at

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