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Courting students: Colleges revamp to stay relevant

As the workforce changes and start-ups flourish, small colleges are now looking for ways to stay relevant for students.

Start-ups account for 3 percent of employment, but close to 20 percent of job creation, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Eric Lima, an associate professor at the Cooper Union in New York, said access to technology and social media is on the minds of many millennials.

College students in class
Kristian Sekulic | Vetta | Getty Images

They also have high aspirations. According to a study by WorkplaceTrends.com and Virtuali, a leadership training firm, 91 percent of millennials want to be leaders. When asked what type of leader they wanted to be, the study found that 63 percent chose "transformational," meaning inspiring others with a sense of purpose.

Read MoreWhy more millennials are bullish on entrepreneurship

With more incoming students interested in exploration, Lima said he has altered his engineering class to fit this new model and student mindset.

"My freshmen class—I totally revamped it. It used to be about making robots and fun competitions that engineers like to do. But engineers coming into New York City really need to understand how their ideas will come about in the world. Often students have good ideas, but they are impractical in the real world," Lima said in an interview with CNBC’s “Closing Bell.”

He now has his students go out and do interviews on their product several times a week, totaling about 100 interviews per semester.

"It used to be a textbook, and the student's job was to learn. Now the professor is a facilitator and it's an open classroom and the student becomes an expert," Lima said.

Lima's revamped class is only 2 years old, but it's gaining ground against competitors. The course, coupled with Cooper Union's Invention Factory summer program, landed the college No.1 on Forbes Most Entrepreneurial College list. Closely behind it was Middlebury College at No. 2 and Colorado College at No. 3.