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Students of All Ages Returning to College for AI

A growing number of students and working professionals are returning to school to learn about artificial intelligence, hoping to cash in on the buzzy market and millions of dollars in support from large tech companies.

a lit-up ball floats over a laptop next to books and a graduation cap
(TNS) — Josh Sinnott graduated from Arizona State University in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in business. He worked various jobs, including a bakery, Charles Schwab, and a local startup. At 26, in 2020, he decided to enroll in an inaugural associate degree program in AI at Chandler-Gilbert Community College (CGCC) outside of Phoenix.

“I was looking for a change of pace,” he said. “I wanted not only to upgrade and update my source of income, but I also had always loved tech.”

The two-year, $6,500 program included coursework in areas like database management, statistics, and Python coding, which Sinnott initially struggled with. “Even though it’s an associate [degree], I know a lot of the things that we were doing were more like Master’s level coursework,” he said.

After graduating in 2022, Sinnott had offers from companies like Google but ended up at, a legal startup building an immigration research tool for attorneys. He works in sales, where he earns “significantly” more than what he used to make, and that’s not counting commissions. Since it’s a small team, he also fills a role he compares to being an AI consultant, and he thinks he’s found his sweet spot.

“I can look at the code and understand why we’re doing it this way,” he said. “But I’m also getting to interact with people with no experience, like attorneys who might be a little hesitant to embrace something like AI.”

Sinnott is part of a growing number of students of all ages who are returning to school for AI, hoping to cash in on the buzzy market. Unlike five or six years ago, when most artificial intelligence jobs required a Master’s or PhD degree, the AI sector is creating new career paths that don’t require years of higher education. In 2022 there were more than 800,000 AI-related job openings across the country, according to the AI Index Report issued by Stanford’s Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence. The launch of ChatGPT in November 2022 has only accelerated the growth, with Forrester estimating that generative AI will reshape more than 11 million jobs by 2030, creating new positions focused on training and using AI systems.

The reshaping of the workforce coincides with a reevaluation of higher education. Ongoing doubts about the value of a college degree continue to drive down enrollment at four-year schools, new research suggests. At the same time, community college enrollment is on the rise: the National Student Clearinghouse documented a 2.6 percent growth in community college enrollment in 2023, and a 16 percent increase in enrollment at two-year schools with a “high vocational program focus.” Given the growth of generative AI, many young people now see more job security for blue-collar workers than white-collar workers, according to a survey last year by software company Jobber.

But growing numbers of students are also eyeing new AI jobs that do not require a four-year degree. High school graduates and workers interested in shifting careers are turning to dozens of community colleges that offer new courses or associate and bachelor’s degrees in machine learning.

Sinnott’s class at CGCC, the school’s first AI cohort, had 75 students. After a pandemic dip, it now has more than 100 students in the current class, with many students older than 25 and others straight from high school. Other programs Fast Company spoke with serve no more than a few hundred students, but enrollments are growing.

The programs are also getting millions of dollars in support from large tech companies, which see community colleges as a way to build a fresh talent pipeline, especially from communities underrepresented in the field. And the programs — with courses like “Machine Learning Through Application,” and “Robot Operating System & Platforms in Artificial Intelligence” — can help accelerate the adoption of their products, now that they’ve become commercially available. After years of developing and tinkering with AI models in labs, tech giants are now focused on how AI is being used in everyday life.

Or as one technologist puts it, there are now ”blue-collar AI” jobs.

That’s a term that Luke Koslosky, a research analyst at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET), doesn’t love. He prefers to call the jobs in AI and other emerging technologies “the new trades.”

Like trade jobs — plumber, electrician, carpenter — that offer stable employment and middle-class incomes, AI is creating career paths for a cross-section of Americans with specific technical abilities and specialized skill sets.

“There are the people developing the systems, and then there are people that will actually use those systems,” Koslosky explained. “There is that middle tier of talent that already exists and will only become more in demand.”

OpenAI, Microsoft, Google, and other companies are selling advanced tools that will need people to install and manage in industries and companies only starting their AI journey. These workers need a slightly different knowledge base than the one needed for building AI, but it is still a specialized skill set. These tasks can include skills like connecting to an API, building the tech stack that AI needs to function, and troubleshooting issues with a data set that wasn’t created with AI in mind. They’ll need to be able to craft useful prompts, to flag inevitable errors, biases and hallucinations, and to understand, as best as possible, how these systems are built. These workers could develop new AI products, too, and some community college programs are already competing with universities in AI competitions.

Sinnot, for his part, says he’s able to contribute to conversations with the developers about which software might be best for certain tasks and how to fine-tune large language models for legal questions. The role allows him to bridge the gap between technical developers and end users who need AI explained.

The number of potential students that could be attracted to the new trades is vast. In the fall of 2021, about 5.7 million students were enrolled in community colleges — more than a third of all undergraduate enrollment, according to the Community College Research Center.

Community colleges, Koslosky said, have largely untapped potential for expanding the AI workforce because of their large student bodies, but they are sorely underestimated by employers and policymakers alike.

Gabriela Rosu, dean of instruction at CGCC, thinks that is changing. Arizona is seeing an explosion of industry, especially aerospace, that could use AI expertise.

So when Intel — one of the largest employers in the state — approached the school, looking to develop an AI workforce program with a community college, Rosu said CGCC was ready.

“Community colleges have innovation in their DNA,” she said. “Their social identity to move [the workforce] forward. They need to come to the front and not be shy when it comes to offering programs.”

$80,000 A YEAR

Graduates are getting offers in the upper $80,000-a-year range, which might not match some of the eye-popping compensation for some AI positions you see in headlines, but is still impressive for a two-year degree.

Rosu said CGCC plans to launch a bachelor’s degree in the fall of 2025. But having one of the most established curricula means she is busy answering questions from other colleges that want an AI program. Rosu estimates that CGCC is helping 60 other community colleges set up their own programs.

Houston Community College (HCC) beat out CGCC for bragging rights by offering the country’s first bachelor’s in AI at a community college. The degree costs around $12,000 for in-district students; the associate’s degree it has offered since 2020 costs half that.

“You don’t need a bachelor’s from a top school to get these high-paying jobs; all you need is skills,” said Samir Saber, dean of the Digital & Information Technology Center of Excellence and the executive director of workforce technology at HCC.

There are 285 students across both programs, with over 70 percent of students coming straight from college. Graduates have ended up at companies like Tesla, McKinsey, and Seed.AI.

That sort of job security piqued the interest of Muskaan Shahzad, who is in HCC’s first bachelor cohort. She grew up thinking technology wasn’t for her, and had planned on studying psychology after moving to Houston. But after realizing a job in psychology would likely need an advanced degree, she came across the AI degree at HCC and decided it was a better fit for her.

Her classes have covered robotics, data science, natural language processing, and deep learning. It’s been such a good fit that the advanced degree she dreaded is back on the table so she can dig in more. She’s interested in a career that lets her combine AI and psychology, which she says has been helpful in her classes. “I like to tell people that in psychology, I was learning about the minds of humans,” she said. “And now, in AI, I’m learning about the minds of computers.”


As at CGCC, tech companies provide curricula, tools, and advice for both HCC’s degrees.

“Blue-chip firms are really going all in because someone has to build that pipeline,” Saber said. ”We just don’t have enough talent that’s bubbling up.”

Companies including Amazon, Microsoft, Nvidia, Google, Intel, and IBM have worked with community colleges across the country to offer teacher training, curriculum material, and access to their tech. While some of the curricula comes from classes developed for internal use, costs do add up in some instances — Amazon, on top of teacher training and curriculum, has also committed to providing free cloud computing training for 29 million people by 2025, something that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, according to Mike Miller, the Director of Generative AI Products at Amazon Web Services.

“In order to really get the best and sort of the most interesting world-changing innovations, you’ve really got to expose this technology to the widest possible set of backgrounds,” Miller said.

The investment in community college AI programs could help alleviate the tech industry’s persistent talent shortages by helping the schools develop degrees that lead straight to jobs, according to Dawn Jones, Intel’s chief diversity and inclusion officer and vice president of social impact.

“What industry brings to the table is an understanding of where those skills and knowledge gaps are and how we can partner because we are actually working on these within our industries,” Jones said.

In 2020 the chipmaker launched the AI for Workforce program to specifically help community colleges prepare current and future workers with crucial AI skills. Intel provides over 500 hours of free AI content and courses, professional faculty training, curricular guidance, and facilitates peer collaboration among participating institutions. The company says over 110 schools in 39 states have joined the program as of this March.

There are many more ways these large tech companies could assist community colleges, which took a hit to enrollment during the pandemic and have not fully recovered, according to Shalin Jyotishi, senior advisor for Education, Labor, Future of Work at New America, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C. That includes providing additional curriculum development, upgrading computer labs, offering internships, and even encouraging their own talent to teach classes.

However, he cautions that academic institutions need to be wary of relying completely on private companies that have their own set of goals, or that could decide to stop supporting community colleges after a bad quarter.

“Colleges need to be eyes wide open,” he said. “They’re being approached by Google. I mean, who’s going to say no to Google, let alone a community college?”

Jyotishi also points out that associate degrees don’t meet the bachelor’s degree requirements for many white-collar jobs, including at some of the companies supporting the programs. While there is a movement towards eliminating the degree requirement, it’s not widespread. This is another way that tech companies could expand their pipelines and talent pools.

“Tech leaders can operationalize skills-based hiring, moving it from the press release to practice, and actually consider community college graduates that don’t have the typical bachelor degree,” he said.


Even with those caveats, AI programs at community colleges continue to expand, including in the heart of AI development. Eight Bay Area community colleges joined up to invest in AI and data analytics programming through the Bay Area Community College Consortium.

Oakland’s Laney College was one of these schools. It launched two AI courses in the fall that were fully booked, according to Ángel G. Fuentes, who was a school administrator at the time and previously helped start the program at CGCC in 2018.

“The Bay Area was the perfect place to do this,” Fuentes said.

The student body skews to typical college age, but instructor Tuan Nguyen has had at least one student he guess is north of 60 years old. They are very “techie,” he says, with some already working at tech companies in the area.

Nguyen is now developing three certificates and an AI degree at Laney. He’s also working with nine other community colleges in California to build AI programs elsewhere, with hopes of bringing in another 50 or so of the 116 community colleges across the state. The goal is to share best practices and bring along faculty and administration that might not understand what the technology can do — and can’t.

“AI is moving very fast,” Nguyen said. “We have to make sure that people are on the same page.”

Despite competition from nearby schools like Stanford and Berkeley, Nguyen said Laney and other Bay Area community colleges teaching AI courses aren’t competing with universities. Community colleges are doing what they’ve always done: educating a workforce for a growing market need.

“There needs to be worker bees,” he said.

Fast Company © 2024 Mansueto Ventures, LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.