Rethinking Higher Education for the Knowledge Economy (Fall, 2017)

Ann Kirschner (University Professor, The Graduate Center; Dean Emeritus, Macaulay Honors College)
Gilda Barabino (City College, Dean, Grove School of Engineering)

Wednesdays, 4:15-6:15pm


What does it take to prepare students for success in the 21st century? This graduate seminar will explore innovations in higher education, with a special focus on technology and new pathways that lead to lifelong learning.

The course will be interdisciplinary in its approach, and will look at the web of assumptions about democracy and social mobility that underlie the American system of higher education. It is appropriate for future faculty members, administrators, or anyone who plans a career in education or public policy, or is interested in innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship in education.

Leaving aside the philosophical question of what constitutes “success,” we start with a set of observations:

  • For the foreseeable future, the majority of good paying jobs will require some kind of
    postsecondary education.
  • America’s faith in the importance of a college degree is, however, declining among prospective students and their families. About half of today’s graduates question the value of their diploma.
  • The undergraduate student body has changed dramatically: what was once the “nontraditional” student—older, working, diverse, more likely to be first generation to graduate from college, more likely to transfer at least once—is now the mainstream of America’s 20 million college students.
  • Liberal arts majors are less and less popular, as students grapple with the challenge of debt, pragmatic concerns about employability, and outmoded pedagogy and curricula.
  • University curriculum and pedagogy in technology-related majors cannot keep up with the velocity of change in the private sector, a misalignment that will only increase in the future. Moreover, as computer science enrollments grow, universities struggle to maintain adequate instructional capacity.

And a set of questions, intended to be broad and provocative:

  • Is higher education set up to serve today’s students?
  • Is the college diploma the future “coin of the realm” for students? For employers?
  • Is the six year graduation rate the right standard of success? What are possible new pathways to success? Should college be shorter? Longer? In residence? Online?
  • Is “vocational” vs. “academic” an anachronistic construct? In an era when the majority of students say they go to college to get a job, how should we think about balancing career-consciousness vs. intellectual aspiration?
  • Should every student study coding? Shakespeare? How will student confidence in their diploma be affected by the need to pursue high tuition “boot camp” programs to gain employment in competitive new economy jobs?
  • Most employers use a college degree as a proxy for skills attainment; that confidence is perhaps the most important asset of higher education. If we lose this confidence either through outmoded curriculum or more reliable or more precise forms of skills assessment, what happens to the value of higher education?
  • What is the role of experiential learning: internships, study abroad, undergraduate research?
  • What pedagogies or newfangled approaches to the disciplines produce the kind of critical thinking that employers say they want? What is critical thinking, anyway?

Imagine a child of six today, graduating from high school in 2028. What do we think college will look like and how do we get ready for that student?

The course will be conducted in a seminar format, emphasizing class presentations and participation. There will be visitors drawn from leaders in higher education and technology. Students will interview students and leaders at other universities, as well as corporate leaders. Each seminar meeting will include a weekly lightning round, where each student will present an article/new study. Some may elect to be embedded with companies for group strategy projects.

As a final assignment, students will choose an area of innovation and present a case for CUNY adoption.


The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309