Education is changing. Perhaps no local institution better proves this than Pima Community College: A campus may close, certificate programs are growing faster than degree programs and online classes are outpacing physical classes. PCC chancellor Lee Lambert points to a few key "gaps" the college is filling that are the cause of all this transition.
"High education is no longer a linear progression," he said. "It's an ecosystem now."
The largest and most influential gap to the college is the "skill gap." According to Lambert, there are so many jobs in the U.S. going unfilled, not because there aren't people available to take the positions, but because those people don't have the adequate skills for the job.
"Each of us needs to become more hybridized workers," Lambert said. "And we need to have more digital skills."
As such, PCC is launching an Autonomous Vehicle Driver and Operational Specialist program in May. This program is formed in partnership with TuSimple, an artificial intelligence company that is testing new autonomous semi trucks and artificial intelligence in its Tucson warehouse. The idea is to train students, as well as truck drivers who might be otherwise replaced, in the very local and booming industry of autonomous trucking. They are also working with Caterpillar and in talks with Raytheon for similar programs.
"This isn't just truck drivers we're talking about," Lambert said. "This is everyone in every sector... Employers are less concerned about degrees and more concerned with hiring competent workers."
PCC is also increasing their certification programs, rather than their degree programs. A notable example is an expanded aviation technician program, which would equip students with the means to pass the FAA's certification exam. Lambert also discussed "micro-certification" programs, where interested workers and students can receive a certification for a single skill or trade in one class, rather than entering the typical degree system.
Lambert emphasized this did not mean PCC is moving away from degrees in favor of certifications, but that they are balancing the two.
PCC administration maintains this greater focus on certifications would not harm their relationship with the University of Arizona, where many PCC students transfer to while completing their higher education degrees.
"Many certification programs are transferable," said Lisa Brosky, PCC Vice Chancellor Of External Relations. "Transfering is still completely part of what we do. I'd say our partnership with UA is strengthening because of it."
Lambert also described a "sustainability gap" the college is seeking to correct. While multiple PCC campuses recently installed solar panels, this gap does not have to do with environmental sustainability.
"This has to do with the sustainability of Pima itself," Lambert said. "Community colleges have been seeing their enrollments drop in the last few years, and that's a very real challenge for us... We've already eliminated over 200 positions at the college."
While PCC once boasted an enrollment of 70,000 students, it is now down to 50,000. Due to these struggles, administration is currently in talks of closing its Community Campus, just west of I-10 off of St. Mary's Road. But this doesn't mean the college is exclusively shrinking. In 2018, PCC purchased the former Fortuna Inn and Suites to transform it into a technology "Center of Excellence."
These "Centers of Excellence" come from PCC hiring an outside firm to help with revising their educational master plan and better understand the labor market. The Centers of Excellence were formed to connect employers and students, the lack of which PCC administration describes as "a critical problem prevalent across industry sectors."
The college also aims to fix a "technology gap" with further emphasis on Pima Online, which Lambert described as their "largest campus" in terms of headcount. As a community college, many of PCC's students are not coming directly from high school, and as such are already working jobs and do not have time to attend typical classroom hours. This means not only expanding online classes, but also placing more of a focus on "massive open online courses."
"MOOCs have grown over 900 percent in the last five years," Lambert said. "We've realized how significant the potential for online is."
As for the "educational achievement gap," Lambert indicated PCC may be transitioning away from mandatory college entrance exams, as he says a student's high school transcript is much more indicative of their performance than standardized testing.
"At Pima, we have to ask ourselves why we're even testing high school students," Lambert said. "These may be optional."
While PCC administration says they are on a "much better trajectory" than previous years, there is still much work to be done.
"Education of the individual in this new economy is critical," Lambert said. "Technology has changed the game around education."