Giving Back


Metropolitan College of New York: Higher Education With a Purpose

Is our system of higher education effective?
Does it prepare people to do meaningful, important work?
How should we change it to better serve society's needs?

Thoughts like these were running through Audrey Cohen's mind back in 1964. During that time of social upheaval, she saw the lack of opportunity for women, as well as poor and disenfranchised people. She wondered if there was a better way. Why wasn't traditional higher education doing a better job of preparing students for work that would benefit them, their families, their workplaces and their society?

She realized that incremental changes were not going to be enough. It was necessary to start with a clean slate and engineer a college education that creates a motivated, effective workforce doing meaningful, productive community work. Her insights led her to found a school that ultimately became the Metropolitan College of New York (MCNY).

"My mother was a passionate and tenacious advocate for educational reform and social change", says Wendy Cohen, Audrey Cohen's daughter, Head of Loyalty & Next Generation Marketing at Morgan Stanley and Vice-Chair of the Board of Trustees of MCNY. "She believed that the measure of learning is not what you know, but what you accomplish with what you know. If you start with that premise, you pretty much have to rethink everything from the students you target to the structure of your program to the content of your curriculum to the teaching pedagogy you employ."

Audrey Cohen thought deeply about how education could help people immediately. She was particularly interested in empowering women who were economically marginalized. She believed that the purpose of education was to help individuals take charge of their own lives, thereby making organizations and communities more effective in serving their constituencies. It was clear to her that traditional education was not structured to achieve those goals. She wanted to restructure education so that it would better serve both students and society.

Audrey Cohen thought about the kind of student she wanted to reach. She imagined a population underserved by traditional education, people whose goals aligned with her vision.

"MCNY was founded to create educational pathways that would lead adults into meaningful work", notes Joanne Passaro, President of MCNY. "The college continues that focus today. MCNY serves the highest percentage of adult students (82%) of any college in the nation, according to US News. Our average student is a 32-year old single mother who is working full-time while coming to school full-time.

Some examples:

I needed a job that would allow me to support my family. I didn't see the need to study traditional classes that don't relate to what I want to do…I wanted to know that what I was studying was relevant to helping me help others. I was a grandmother when I went back to school. I wanted a program where I'd come away doing something I believe in.

My son was born when I was in high school. The fact that I could get a bachelor's degree in under three years was appealing, but the idea that I could keep my job and get skills that would help me get promoted was even better.

To reach this type of nontraditional student, MCNY reimagined the logistics of traditional higher education, challenging every assumption. For example, MCNY operates three full semesters a year to enable students to finish more quickly while still earning a fully accredited degree. MCNY also schedules classes at night and on weekends for working students.

Aside from logistical considerations, how would one structure an education focused on helping students "identify and achieve goals that would benefit their workplaces and societies?" What would be taught?

There must be a close connection between what students learn and how they hope to apply their knowledge. The specificity and relevance of the material is crucial.

"Research suggests that we are more motivated to learn, and more personally fulfilled, if we see our work as meaningful and important," notes President Passaro. "At the same time, our mission is to prepare our students to do work that benefits others as well as themselves. This is one area in which our goals as individuals dovetail perfectly with positive benefits for our community. Our students learn to use the knowledge they acquire to make positive change."

So the goal is clear. But to accomplish this mission, students need skills, knowledge and practical experience. What kind? How can they be made universal? What characterizes skills that can be used in the real world?

To find out, Audrey Cohen interviewed professionals from many fields, trying to identify the key competencies that characterize effective, community-based service work. This research helped define the principles of Purpose-Centered Education.

As one would in the workplace, students at MCNY identify and define a goal, then pursue the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve their goal.

"Each semester, students carry out a real-world project, or what we call a Constructive Action," explains President Passaro. "During their time at MCNY, they might develop a training program at their current place of employment or create a facility for housing the homeless." A Constructive Action may be as small as teaching a paraplegic how to use a toothbrush or as large as establishing a daycare center. In some way, every Constructive Action should aim to improve the world.

Examples of Constructive Actions include:

  • Attending MCNY after working with Head Start for more than 20 years, one student created a job enrichment and training program that helped case workers develop the skills needed to assist families.

  • A student of Haitian heritage started an orphanage in her ancestral homeland.

  • In response to the low percentages of minorities in the National Bone Marrow Registry, a student created a nonprofit organization called "Preserve Our Legacy" to help patients get the life-saving treatment they need. Obviously, ambitious projects like these require more than motivation and the right attitude; they require significant, broad, specific skills to make them succeed. The curriculum at MCNY is constructed around this imperative.

Shana Melius' Constructive Action changed her community and beyond.

While working in Public Relations, I met a boy named Jaden. He was three years old and suffered from leukemia. Stem cells and umbilical cord blood could have saved him, but matches are hard to find, especially among people of color. When Jaden lost his battle, I knew that I wanted to do something that could help prevent another Jaden.

As her Constructive Action, Shana created a nonprofit called "Preserve Our Legacy," implementing her coursework at MCNY. Preserve Our Legacy has launched umbilical cord blood donation programs at local hospitals, and, in 2012, they helped pass Jaden's Law in New Jersey, which helps donors easily identify themselves.

Constructive Action is a way of demonstrating student mastery of coursework through meaningful work. "The Constructive Action program at MCNY made Preserve Our Legacy possible," says Shana. "Planning, implementing and running an organization takes skill and knowledge. It's great to have a vision, but the CA program helped me take what I'd learned — as I was learning it — and turn it into important action for my community.'

In preparation for their Constructive Action, students take classes that teach them to look at problems and solutions from five different perspectives: Purpose; Values and Ethics; Self and Others; Systems; and Skills. Examples include Promoting Empowerment through Work in Groups and Philosophies of Change and their Impact on Social Policy. While highly specialized and focused on skill development, these classes are not unlike traditional college courses. "We have not done away with disciplinary knowledge," explains Deborah Allen, Former Co-Vice-Chair of the Board of Trustees of MCNY and a longtime colleague of Audrey Cohen. "We just pull it apart and arrange the pieces in a way that is relevant to achieving meaningful goals."

Each semester's Constructive Action is tied to a particular area of professional responsibility, such as counseling or supervision or marketing. By graduation, students have acquired a full set of competencies that are essential in their chosen profession—and they have practiced using them in their workplace.

Students have a class in Values and Ethics every semester. "This concept is woven into the very fabric of the MCNY educational model," explains Wendy Cohen. "Students learn how to understand their own values and the values of other people and organizations in order to make a positive impact."

"Going back to our original ideals, students are interested in work that is meaningful and important," says President Passaro. "At MCNY, part of our raison d'etre is to enable students to think critically about the impact of all their choices. The MCNY faculty teaches students how to use knowledge to benefit others, make positive use of what they are learning and to apply that knowledge. In this way, our students link learning with action to improve the world."

The concept of Purpose-Centered Education works well in a diverse range of professional arenas. MCNY offers a variety of degree programs, in fields from education to business, public affairs to media, financial services to emergency management. "People can do meaningful, important work across society," notes Wendy Cohen. "Our model is effective because it focuses on helping people learn how to make a difference."

To learn more about the Metropolitan College of New York, visit

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