Bryan Reece, Ph.D.
Changing the Trajectory of Students' Lives
Updated: Oct 13, 2019
You and I are in the early decades of a new economy that is changing our work lives in very dramatic ways. There are several reasons for this, but two of the leading culprits are globalization and digital technology. Global markets are larger and more connected than they have ever been in human history, and technology is more widespread and capable than it has ever been in human history. Combined, these two forces are altering the nature of work, the work that is needed in society today, and the work that will be needed tomorrow. As a leader in higher education, I think about this a lot because we are trying to prepare students for their futures and we want to make sure we are preparing them for jobs that are on the rise and not for jobs that are in decline.
At the World Economic Forum in Switzerland this year, there was a study released that speaks to this issue (
). The report looked at all jobs in the U.S. and Europe, assessing their demand between 2016 and 2030. With the findings from their analysis, we can categorize jobs into two categories: jobs that are on the rise and jobs that are in decline.
The “green box” above summarizes the findings for jobs in decline. The study estimates that in 2016 there were the equivalent of 153 million full-time jobs. These jobs are trending down, so much so that by the time the U.S. and Europe reach 2030, this category will have lost the equivalent of 23 million full time jobs and individuals who remain in those jobs will likely experience wage stagnation.
Jobs in the “purple box” are expected to grow. The study estimates that in 2016 there were the equivalent of 160 million full-time jobs. These jobs are trending up, so much so that by the time the U.S. and Europe reach 2030, this category will have added the equivalent of 38 million full-time jobs and most individuals employed in these jobs will experience healthy wages.
The purple box contains the jobs we want to prepare students for. These jobs offer the promise of success for students. In contrast, the green box shows a decline, and while jobs in this category will remain a significant block of our overall economy, their diminishing trend suggests we should discourage students from entering these fields.
Jobs in decline include those that require manual labor, low cognition, low skills and repetitive tasks. Global markets and digital technology are taking these jobs. Jobs that are on the rise tend to require technology expertise, people and management skills, high levels of cognition, elevated skills and creativity. These jobs are predicted to continue growing because automation is not currently able to replicate these tasks and cheaper labor markets do not have the skills to take these jobs in significant numbers from the American and European markets.
As globalization and digital technology continue to accelerate—and they are accelerating—the purple box will continue to expand and the green box will continue to shrink.
When I look at these trends from a personal perspective, I tend to have a sense of optimism. Most of my career has been in the purple areas. My wife’s career is in the purple area. Our kids are preparing for careers in the purple area. Most of my friends and colleagues are "purple." But if your livelihood is in the green box or if you were born into a family that has traditionally worked in the green box, you have a very different perspective on these trends. What these individuals often experience is job loss or the fear of job loss, community blight, and economic hardship. This is hitting pockets of rural and urban America especially hard, and if you think this I am exaggerating this point, I recommend you listen to the American electorate—especially voices from the green box. They are angry, upset, and desperate as they watch their livelihoods diminish while people in the purple box prosper and flourish. The volume of their rhetoric has broken through the traditional ceiling of our civic dialogue and they are yelling. We need to HEAR them and urgently respond with solutions that are practical, creative, expansive and scalable. If we do not respond, millions will get trapped in this shrinking green box and they will suffer for a generation or more. This is a national crises. We must figure out how to move millions from the "green" to the "purple."
This effort will take collaboration from multiple sectors in society; however, I believe higher education should take the lead. But, none of these efforts will be successful if we do not recognize how difficult it is for a person in the green box to move into the purple box. This is a highly complicated challenge.
We are all born into a trajectory for our lives that shapes the choices we make in meaningful ways. We are born into a community of socializing agents who shape and influence us profoundly, especially during our formative years. Our family members, friends, colleagues, neighbors, teachers, coaches, religious leaders, etc. are present throughout our lives and in the day-to-day exchanges we have with them, we come to understand who we are and who we think we can become. And because Americans tend to live in communities with similar SES, the messages we receive from these people are very consistent, setting us on a path or a trajectory that suggests what we can offer the world and what the world has to offer us. This leads to a suggested set of skills to develop and a likely set of jobs to pursue. I am not saying that individuals have no control over the lives they choose, but I am saying these socializing agents have a tremendous amount of influence over us.
This entire discussion leads to one of the most important roles higher education is to play in American society. We are to find students who are on "green trajectories", leading to declining jobs and change the trajectory of their lives by pointing them in the direction of jobs that are on the rise. We are trying to re-track their lives into "purple trajectories." To do this, we must introduce new socializing agents into students' lives who are so influential that they are able to counter the weight of a student’s socialization history and alter a lifetime of deeply established patterns. This is not an easy task!
Let me give you an example of how I have seen this play out in a student's life. A few years ago I had the privilege of getting to know Brenda Lopez. She was born in Mexico and raised there until she was six years old, at which point her family moved to Southern California where Brenda attended elementary school, middle school and high school. After high school, she enrolled at Norco College where I was President at the time. Brenda was raised by a family who loved her deeply and they brought her up in a very traditional environment. As a result, when she came to Norco College, Brenda had a pretty limited view of who she might become and what she might be able to offer the world in terms of a career.
She started taking classes with this mindset and quickly noticed she was better at math and science than most of the other students. She got involved in the STEM Club (The Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Club). Two faculty members and a few staff members took an interest in her academic success. She "discovered" engineering and declared this as her major. She and a few of her classmate entered an engineering competition at UC Riverside and she enjoyed the experience so much, that the following year Brenda organized a team, entered the competition again, and took first place with the design of a wind turbine that incorporated an innovated use of magnets to limit the overall friction and resistance in the turbine. She did very well at Norco College and transferred to the Bourns School of Engineer at UC Riverside. At the date of this publication, Brenda is in her last year at UCR and preparing for graduate school.
I love this story. It is about a young woman who worked very hard to change the trajectory of her life. It is also about a group of people who wrapped themselves around Brenda to help her change the trajectory of her life. This story needs to happen with greater frequency across higher education, but students like Brenda are much more likely to stall in the middle of their academic journeys than they are to succeed. According to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University (
), millions of students like Brenda start their college journeys each year, but less than 15 percent complete it. Students from native communities, communities of color, historically under-served communities, students with recent immigrant histories, students from cycles of low income or poverty, and students where no one in their entire family has attended college are disproportionately represented in the green box, tracking toward jobs with very little promise. There is a complex history of political, economic and sociological factors that explain this bias, but the fact is, millions of these students start the same journey Brenda will be completing this year, but less than 15 percent will reach graduation. We must interrupt this dismal record of success.
I believe these limited completion rates are connected to two primary drivers: First, making the shift from green to purple is difficult for many of the reasons we have already discussed. Second, many of the students who are trying to make this shift face these difficulties largely alone. Nearly all of these students come from low or moderate income families. As such, most of the students who attend college go to state funded institutions, with the majority attending community colleges. At their community college, students find themselves on a journey with hundreds of hurdles in front of them and typically must mitigate these hurdles alone. They often walk down their paths with a great deal of anonymity, struggling to get over each hurdle by themselves. Many of these students are first-generation college attendees. They live with family members who love and care for them, but these same family members are likely to have no college going experience and therefore are limited in their ability to help navigate these hurdles. And when these students are on campus, they struggle to find help. Many community colleges have student-to-faculty ratios that are as high as 100 students per 1 faculty member. Some campuses have student-to-counselor ratios around 800 students per 1 counselor. If you compare this to a place like Harvard, with 6 or 7 students per every 1 faculty member, you can seek the stark difference in support community college students receive. We MUST interrupt this sense of anonymity.
The obvious solution to this sense of anonymity is to double or triple the number of faculty and staff at our community colleges. I am completely in favor of this approach, but these are tax supported institutions and a personnel expansion of this magnitude is not realistic. What we need to do instead is leverage existing technologies and social networks.
Many companies in the private sector today have encountered a similar problem. They have a very large base of customers and relatively few employees, but they have figured out how to deliver highly personalized customer experiences in spite of high customer-to-employee ratios. For example, Facebook has an estimated 35,600 employees and about 2.7 billion users. That is a customer-to-employee ratio of more than 75,000:1. But every time I logon to Facebook, my experience is highly individualized, personalized, curated, and fairly intense. I never feel lost in a sea of 2.7 billion users. Many companies have created environments like this by basically doing three things: 1) They collect a lot of data about each customer from a range of sources; 2) Using artificial intelligence, they turn this data into information the customer might want to consume; and 3) They communicate that information to the customer through a platform or various communications channels using constituent relationship management tools.
We need to adopt this approach in higher ed. We already collect significant data about students including academic data, contact information, student engagement data and more. We need to aggregate this data, and turn it into information that tells us where the student is on his or her path, where they should be on their path and what the college/student needs to do to close the gap. We then need to communicate this information to each student through a platform and/or communications channels. If we can achieve this and scale it across higher education—especially the institutions these students attend—students will be more informed and feel less alone.
However, if we want to be truly powerful in our affect, we need to incorporate socializing agents into this process.
To understand this idea, image a new student named Alicia. She is a first generation student, attending community college with a range of mixed emotions about her likelihood of success. In her life are are eight relationships that are critical to her academic success. These are the new socializing agents in her life. They are the people who most often encourage her academically, including an uncle and sister who have always been supportive, two faculty members who have taken an interest in her success, a few classmates and a roommate who are supportive, and a coach from high school who keeps in touch with her. To fully incorporate these new socializing agents, we need to take the data-information-communication that is sent directly to Alicia, repackage it slightly and send it to her new socializing agents so they can encourage Alicia in a more informed manner.
Imagine if you were one of these people in her life and the college she is attending sent you an email letting you know she just made the Dean’s List. The email included an explanation of how difficult it is to make the Dean's List, what an honor it is to make the list, how few students made the list, etc. Inside the email was a simple hyperlink making it easy for you to post the information to social media and tag Alicia during the process. Would you click on the hyperlink? Of course you would. You know this simple act would generate a wide range to positive reactions from the people in her life and as a fan of Alicia, you are no doubt going to take easy actions to help her out. This is what human beings do when we are part of someone's support structure. Now imagine in another instance you received an email from the college saying she has been showing signs of discouragement and the email suggests you reach out to her. Would you reach out? Again, of course you would, but probably in a more private way.
There are significant permissions issues to work out in this model, but the force of informed socializing agents encouraging us to move forward and helping us over difficult hurdles is undeniable. Social Science has exhaustively documented this phenomenon and underscored its importance in the human experience. But, it has not been fully leveraged to help "green students" at scale, the same way it already helps "purple students."
We have millions of students across the United States who come from difficult trajectories. Many of them are in college hoping for a trajectory change that points toward a more promising future, but too many are alone, facing big hurdles, and therefore too likely to fail. We are not designed to do difficult things alone. We need each other.
If you are in education, these students need you to help move this model forward by leaning into this work. If you are in the tech sector, you have done this kind of work with amazing results for private companies. These students need you to transfer this expertise to the institutions they attend. If you are a policymaker, in a nonprofit or a philanthropist who works in higher ed, these students need you to prioritize and fund this work. And if you are none of these—if you are just an individual who wants to help. You probably know a student like those discussed in this article. It might be a student transitioning from high school to college. It might be a student already in college. Whatever stage they are in on their journey, I encourage you to decide right now, that you are going to reach out to them, walk beside them, and help them over a few of these hurdles. If you become an active socializing agent in the lives of these students, you can literally change their lives. And in the end, it might change your life too.