Economic and workforce development is the most pressing issue on many higher education stakeholders’ minds this year as they push for state policy partial to their interests. A surefire way institutions can show they are committed to placing students in academic programs beneficial to the U.S. economy is by boasting their computer science, data science and STEM-related tracks.
Its vitality has only skyrocketed since the rise of AI; the potential enrollment gains institutions can reap from implementing such sophisticated programs may be prompting a new “academic arms race” in higher education, according to some experts.
But artificial intelligence’s potential has imposed competition on a much larger scale than academia. The U.S. and China are in the midst of a more literal arms race as they rush to develop microchips (also referred to as semiconductors or memory chips), which are crucial components to developing sophisticated computers capable of breakthroughs in AI. The country that outcompetes the other in this space finds itself at a military advantage, Reuters reports.
National interest in revitalizing domestic manufacturing related to microchip technology and AI, coupled with state initiatives to spur workforce development, has created an opportunity for higher education to strengthen its value proposition at the two-year, four-year and postgraduate levels.
Federal agencies are helping bolster higher ed’s academic value
Efforts to tackle AI and related technology have been underway since the turn of the decade. Before the Chat GPT-led, generative AI evolution that launched in November 2022, the National Science Foundation pumped $220 million to establish 11 AI institutes across the United States. The Institute for Learning-enabled Optimization at Scale (TILOS) is one of them, led by world-renowned universities like MIT, Yale and UPenn.
National University (Calif.) is among the partnering institutions, too. Using a portion of the $20 million granted to TILOS to launch its Bachelor in Data Science degree program, the minority-serving institution aims to retrain military service members and veterans in transition for data science and artificial intelligence careers. About 40% of its undergraduate students are veterans and approximately 35% are active duty military members, an attractive cohort for high-tech employers, says Jodi Reeves, chair of NU’s Department of Data Science & Analytics.
“They’re mature and mission-oriented, and security clearance is really important in many high-tech companies,” she says. “[These are] crucial skills for those high-tech jobs.”
The mission of TILOS intersects with another important development in U.S. policy: The CHIPS and Science Act. Both aim to spur a revival in U.S. domestic manufacturing and the design of memory chips. The Brookings Institute describes the Biden-era bill as “one the most important workforce development laws in years” due to 33 of its programs supporting STEM-related education, training and outreach. Its whopping $250 billion budget aims to develop job pathways that don’t require a bachelor’s level education while still supporting technical skill development.
“Both the semiconductor industry specifically and the advanced sector more broadly report persistent challenges in securing sufficient science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professionals and technicians,” write Brookings Senior Fellows Martha Ross and Mark Muro.
The CHIPS Act can potentially buffer an economy-wide shortage as the demand for skilled individuals grows in data science and AI technology careers, projected to balloon by 35% in the next decade, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Electrical engineering is also expected to grow faster than the national average.
“The CHIPS ACT [is] a specific example of how we want to retake high-tech manufacturing and put it on American shores so that American workers benefit,” Reeves says. “That’s something that all educational institutions want to support.”
While AI specialization at NU is still contained within its higher-level degree programs, the institution and its TILOS-affiliated institutions are brainstorming ways to create a curriculum on AI specialization at the two-year and four-year levels as the boundaries between AI and other fields are becoming increasingly blurry.
“It’s the careers of the future,” she says. “We realize AI touches so many different industries, so we’re looking at education in multiple tiers and trying to broaden that participation in various levels. “Whether in business, healthcare or law, you should be able to take an intro to AI course to know AI Ethics and what AI is and isn’t.”