Chancellor James B. Milliken

Chancellor James B. Milliken

Appointed to start on June 1, 2014, James B. Milliken serves as Chancellor of The City University of New York. »

New York’s Future and the Future of Public Higher Education

April 4, 2013 | Speeches and Testimony

Economist Richard Wolff recently appeared on “Moyers & Company” and made this point: “We economists believe that the single most important factor shaping the future of any economy in the world, including the United States, is the quality and the quantity of the educated trained labor force it produces.  Colleges and universities are where we do that.”[i]

I agree.  The question is, how are we to keep doing that?  What are the changes and realities we must grapple with if we are to sustain the important role our universities play in our economic well-being?

Many of you know that I’m a graduate of City College.  I share that wonderful distinction with people like Andrew Grove, Colin Powell, Jonas Salk, Felix Frankfurter, Sy Sternberg, Bob Catell, and so many, many more.  Most of us went to CCNY because it was low cost, high quality, and open to serious students of any background.  And just think of the return on investment that our city and country have reaped from graduates like Andrew Grove and General Powell—and the thousands of other CCNY and CUNY graduates who serve the city as teachers, doctors, journalists, business owners, and so much more. 

Today, a college education is more important than ever before.  As our economy becomes more technologically driven, it is imperative that students have the skill set that will allow them to participate and thrive in sophisticated workplaces. 

But today there is a growing divide between the haves and have nots—between those with these skills, and those without.  Today, New York City has a growing reputation as “Silicon Alley”—with a robust tech market, a focus on applied science, and clusters of health care and educational institutions.  But keep in mind these numbers from a report by the Lumina Foundation:

  • Nearly 65% of adults (ages 25-64) in Manhattan have at least an associate degree.  But less than 27% of adults in the Bronx do
  • Statewide, nearly 52% of white adults have attained a degree—but only 24% of Hispanic adults have
  • And according to at least one analysis, nearly two-thirds of New York’s jobs will require post-secondary education by 2018[ii]

What’s the takeaway?  We simply must educate more New Yorkers, especially those in fast-growing groups: working adults, low-income and first-generation students, and students of color.

For me, the overall message is clear: public universities are more important than ever to the future of this city and this country.  And yet, public universities face more challenges than ever before.  A number of key shifts in higher education will require universities to act more boldly and creatively, and be much more responsive to our constituencies.

First, there are changes in who we serve:

Many of our potential students are from a generation that has always lived in cyberspace, that has only seen women serve as secretary of state, that thinks that gene therapy has always been available.[iii]  How can we best engage this generation in learning—and do it alongside the other generations we serve?

Our current student body is also different.  They are much more mobile today.  More students are finishing their education at a college or university different from the one at which they started.  And more are part-time, adult learner, and dual enrollment students.[iv]

As the New York Times has reported, institutions like New Jersey’s Thomas Edison State College and New York’s Excelsior College are growing—institutions that allow students to patch together degree requirements from standardized exams, other universities, online courses, workplace and military training, and portfolio assessments.[v]  They cater to student mobility and focus on the idea of competency, not classroom hours.  Calls for competency-based education are growing, both from students and from employers, who are less concerned about the credit hours earned than the skills learned.[vi]  Traditional universities must account for more variance, more movement, and more demand for demonstrable skills acquisition.  (CUNY’s own initiative, called Pathways, is one example of a general education/transfer system designed to encourage seamless transition with enhanced academic rigor and flexibility.) 

Second, there are also changes in how we serve students:

For example, nationwide, the most common degree is still the bachelor’s degree—but do you know what’s second?  Certificates.  They’re now surpassing associate and master’s degrees.[vii]  But how responsive are universities to that shift? 

In addition, MOOCs—massively open online courses—and other online delivery options have the potential to change traditional instruction models.  For example, eventually an institution may determine the curricula, governance, and pricing to offer an entire degree through the existing menu of MOOCs.  Students will choose among professors from Stanford, MIT, Penn, and universities across the globe. A credential with the imprimatur of leading scholars is a powerful incentive.

Already, the state of California is introducing legislation that would require its public universities to give credit for online courses, including MOOCs and courses developed outside the institution, when they are taken by students who are not able to register for oversubscribed courses.[viii] 

We’re in the infancy of these developments, and still need more empirical research.  But it’s clear that there is a shift, if not yet a tectonic shift, in how we view content delivery. 

And whether online or classroom based, our standard learning models need to be reconsidered.  What are students actually learning in college?  (Some, like Richard Arum, in his book Academically Adrift, would say that many are not learning much.)  We need to determine whether students are gaining the advanced skills they need through our current modes of instruction.  How do we best measure those learning gains?

In addition, faculty—those who provide the instruction—are changing.  Today, about 70% of instructional faculty at all colleges are not tenure-track faculty.[ix]  However, the quality assurance measures in place for full-time, tenure-track faculty are not as robust for other faculty.  How can we address that? 

And third, universities have to examine how well we meet the educational needs of our students:

Both government and private funders are demanding accountability.  Institutions must be able to gather and use data in sophisticated ways in order to demonstrate student success, both in college and in the labor market.

Universities also need to seek advice and direction from companies whose employment needs can shape the direction of curricular innovation.  For example, the new Cornell NYC Tech institution [the winner of the NYC Applied Science initiative] is based in part on the idea that many ideas originate in the market, rather than in the university.  Its program focuses on applied science master’s degrees, and it is highly connected to business and industry.  The physical campus itself is shared by both companies and classrooms, and the curriculum includes solving technological challenges for companies.[x]

Universities have much to learn from employers.  A CUNY Jobs Task Force report that I commissioned a couple of years ago made this clear.  Executives from key NYC industries reported a significant skills gap in the current generation of workers, and the need to build stronger, more meaningful links with business and industry.[xi]

Finally, how will we finance higher education going forward, and deliver a high-quality education that doesn’t burden students with debt?  Today, government support is declining, and the financial burden is increasingly placed on students.  States are spending 28% less per student on higher education today than they did when the recession hit in 2008.  During that same period, annual published tuition at four-year public colleges has grown by 27%, after adjusting for inflation.[xii]

A recent Moody’s report suggests that revenue streams “will [probably] never flow as robustly as they did before 2008” and that universities will have to lower their cost structures by better utilizing technology, increasing operational efficiency, demonstrating value, reaching new markets, and prioritizing programs.[xiii]    

The specter of sequestration also looms large in our thinking, especially in the essential role that government plays in supporting basic research and helping students afford college.

These new operational realities demonstrate why, as Matt Miller wrote in the Washington Post a couple of years ago: “…we’re in a race between innovation and calcification.”[xiv] 

Every institution must either innovate or calcify.

Clearly, we need to identify and pilot new and effective financial and instructional models—with the goal of providing an accessible, high-quality education for students of all backgrounds, one that is focused on learning outcomes.  And we need to do that in partnership with government and the business community.

Because what we all need are the talents of the City College and CUNY graduates of tomorrow—those who, today, are given a shot at an outstanding education that doesn’t leave them in debt, and who are prepared to serve our city and country with distinction.  Maybe those graduates will be CUNY’s recent Rhodes Scholars, or the ASAP students at our community colleges, or our student leaders at the Macaulay Honors College.  I know this: if we invest in those students today, our city will reap the benefits of that investment for years to come.



[i] “What Has Capitalism Done for Us Lately?” Moyers & Company, March 22, 2013.  Full transcript accessed 03/28/13:

[ii] “A Stronger Nation Through Higher Education: New York,” Lumina Foundation Policy Brief, March 2012, accessed 03/28/13:

[iii] Beloit College Mindset List for the Class of 2016, accessed 03/28/13:

[iv] Lipka, Sara, “As Typical Student Changes, So Do Worries About Costs,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 26, 2012, accessed 03/28/13:

[v] Lewin, Tamar, “Adults Are Flocking to College that Paved Way for Flexibility,” The New York Times, February 25, 2013, accessed 03/28/13:

[vi] Fain, Paul, “Carnegie Foundation considers a redesign for the credit hour,” Inside Higher Ed, December 5, 2012, accessed 03/28/13:

[vii] González, Jennifer, “Certificates Rise to 22% of Postsecondary Credentials Awarded, Report Says,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 6, 2012, accessed 03/28/13:

[viii] Lewin, Tamar, “California Bill Seeks Campus Credit for Online Study,” The New York Times, March 12, 2013, accessed 03/28/13:

[ix] June, Audrey Williams, “Adjuncts Build Strength in Numbers,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 5, 2012, accessed 03/28/13:

[x] Kaminer, Ariel, “New Cornell Technology School Tightly Bound to Business,” The New York Times, January 21, 2013, accessed 03/28/13:

[xi] “Jobs for New York’s Future: Report of The City University of New York’s Jobs Task Force 2012,” accessed 03/28/13:

[xii] Oliff, Phil, and Vincent Palacios, Ingrid Johnson, and Michael Leachman, “Recent Deep State Higher Education Cuts May Harm Students and the Economy for Years to Come,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, March 19, 2013, pp. 3, 7, accessed 03/28/13:

[xiii] Kiley, Kevin, “Nowhere to Turn,” Inside Higher Ed, January 17, 2013, accessed 03/28/13:

[xiv] Miller, Matt, “What Obamanomics is Missing: Disruptive innovation,” The Washington Post, September 10, 2010, accessed 03/28/13: