A New Model of Higher Education
How a global, low-cost college is attempting to solve some persistent problems that plague higher education.
I dropped out of MIT when I was 19 to pursue a career in the music industry at Columbia/CBS Records. It didn’t take me long to realize that my own education had wholly failed to prepare me for a job at a major corporation. In school, my teachers told me what I needed to know, but in the workplace, I had to figure out what I needed to know—and how to learn it—with little or no guidance.
Years later, I finished my undergraduate degree and pursued a doctorate in psychology. I found myself lecturing to 700 undergrads in much the same “sage on the stage” style that had been used on me. I was teaching and my students were listening, but there was very little learning going on. To paraphrase the great singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, I’ve looked at education from both sides now. Something was wrong.
I was eager to design new ways to cultivate lifelong learners when I met Dr. Stephen Kosslyn and Ben Nelson, who were starting Minerva Schools at KGI, an innovative undergrad program affiliated with Keck Graduate Institute that was created to address this disconnect between traditional academia and real life. When they offered me the position of founding dean of Arts and Humanities, I accepted.
In the process of designing this new institution from the ground up, we committed to addressing the following problems.
Problem 1: School is not relevant to students’ real lives. Given how poorly my own education prepared me for life after school, I have come to believe that education at all levels should focus on practical knowledge. Students should know how to think critically and flexibly so they can apply their learning to real world situations.
At Minerva, this is reinforced both in and outside of the classroom—from case studies that introduce a topic or concept to location-based assignments and civic projects that our students complete in partnerships with local organizations in each city. Naturally we provide readings and assignments, but from the first day, students learn to take responsibility for filling the gaps in their knowledge by seeking out additional information on their own, just like in the workplace.
Problem 2: Teaching has not kept pace with the digital revolution. In the age of Google and Wikipedia, it doesn’t make sense to cram facts into young minds. Information that used to be time-consuming to find is now available instantly. So the focus should instead be teaching children and young adults the difference between reliable and unreliable sources.
To solve this problem, Minerva’s first year curriculum includes coursework in which students learn to evaluate sources of all types and mediums, making plausibility checks, considering systematic biases that may enter into reports and their interpretation.
That said, we know that retention of some information is still important. Students practice identifying and retaining this critical information when learning new concepts.
Problem 3: There has been a decline in social consciousness and civility in public discourse. The internet has created an unprecedented level of globalization as well as a combative partisanship in our society, yet our current educational system all too often develops students’ intellectual minds without addressing their integrity or ability to engage with others with civility. Brilliance without ethics or civility often ends in disaster.
So that they can succeed in this interconnected world, we teach our students to develop a sensitivity to different cultural norms as well as an ability to work with people from very different backgrounds, with varying viewpoints and experiences. Much of this is woven into the fabric of our student body; our students come from more than 60 countries and a wide range of socioeconomic, ethnic, political, and religious backgrounds.
Through these experiences, Minerva students learn to evaluate the ethical and moral consequences of their decisions and to try to make the world a better place for the sake of doing so—not because they might get recognition.
Problem 4: Traditional college campuses are too insular. To give students a more immersive global experience, Minerva redesigned the concept of a college campus. Our students start their first year in San Francisco, a global city in which 112 languages are spoken and a third of the population was born outside the U.S.
From there, students reside in six other global cities during subsequent academic terms: Seoul, South Korea; Hyderabad, India; Berlin; Buenos Aires, Argentina; London; and Taipei, Taiwan. In each city, students engage with local community partner organizations in civic projects that are designed to stimulate and challenge students to better understand the world and its people. For example, a team of Minerva students in Berlin collaborated with Kiron, an organization helping student refugees complete their university degrees. They lived two blocks from the site of the Berlin Wall, surrounded by locals, so they could experience firsthand the similarities and differences between the former East and West Berlin.
Problem 5: College costs are astronomical. Talent and intellect are not concentrated among the wealthy. Rising tuition costs have put higher education out of reach of many of the world’s most talented young adults. At Minerva, anyone who is academically qualified can attend. Our model allows us to keep tuition to about a quarter of the cost of other top-tier programs, $12,950 a year, because we don’t have the infrastructure maintenance costs. Each city that our students live and learn in during their four years serves as a nonrestrictive “campus” for our students, and offers a plethora of unique opportunities that are simply not possible on a traditional campus.
While a global experience may at first sound out of reach, Minerva committed itself to fair accessibility from day one; every student in need of financial assistance receives low-interest loans (but not more than $5,000 a year, to avoid a lifetime of debt), and work-study opportunities to enable them to pursue their academic aspirations, with any remaining need funded via scholarships from the nonprofit Minerva Institute.
On the Horizon
Students from all over the world are studying together and engaging in meaningful dialogue about our collective future, despite their individual and cultural differences. Mutual respect has become a habit of mind, and they are deeply engaged in thinking about how to spread ideas of tolerance, fairness, and service, and about how to repair the world, both locally and globally.
What’s more, what students are learning at Minerva is relevant, based on a curriculum designed to impart the very skills that numerous studies confirm are most valued by employers and graduate programs alike. In 2016–17, we administered the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA+), a standardized test that assesses critical thinking, problem solving, and written expression. Roger W. Benjamin, the president and CEO of the Council for Aid to Education, the organization that administers the test, noted that Minerva’s performance was “extraordinary in recent test administrations of CLA+. It is clear Minerva is delivering significant contributions to student learning.”
Finally, we are maintaining an accessible tuition, and interest continues to grow—both among applicants interested in our programs and institutions interested in our methods. It appears that higher education is ready for a change.