Minerva University: Wisdom Through Experience

One university is developing global citizens by rethinking the entire higher education process, from admission to curriculum.

6 minutes
By: Maryna Yankovska
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Imagine there was a way to complete undergraduate studies while traveling to seven countries on different continents. Students explore new cultures while learning from Ivy League professors and the brightest industry leaders. This is the experience for students at Minerva University.

Minerva University has been ranked #1 among the world’s most innovative universities two years in a row, according to the WURI. Students travel to San Francisco, Hyderabad, Seoul, Buenos Aires, London, Berlin and Taipei while participating in a rigorous academic program. MU’s student body comprises students from 100 nations, with 85% originating from countries other than the United States.

It Starts With a Vision

Minerva Schools was founded in 2013 and housed within Keck Graduate Institute, one of the seven Claremont Colleges. Minerva Project, a mission-driven organization that aims to transform higher education so that it is more relevant and more effective, built the program. 

“The initial vision was to create a university that would provide students with the knowledge and intellectual skills to solve complex problems and make good decisions, an education for the 21st century, for example, for jobs that had not even been created yet,” said Teri Cannon, Minerva University’s founding president. 

Cannon and her team saw a need for an intercultural immersion and international student body. The main focus of the curriculum was to think critically and creatively while communicating and interacting effectively.

Development Takes Time

“The university has evolved in many important ways,” said Cannon. “We learned that we need to provide more structure to optimize the value of students’ global experience, which led to the creation of learning outcomes for intercultural competency and other personal attitudes and values, now embedded in students’ work over all four years.”

According to Cannon, the services and support Minerva provides to students have also evolved to better meet their needs over time.

“For example, the way that the experience on the ground is connected to the classroom and the way that we provide support for students’ development, growth and mental health,” said Cannon.

Now, Minerva University is an independent institution accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, which allows the university’s degrees to be recognized globally. Cannon noted that one of the challenges of getting an accreditation was to “fit the spirit and the letter of the accreditation standards [of WASC]” without necessarily looking like a conventional institution of higher learning.

“Innovation with quality was our mental model for doing what we wanted and meeting the standards,” said Cannon. 

No SATs, Just Challenges

MU is a highly selective university with an acceptance rate of approximately 1%. In stark contrast to other institutions, Minerva’s unique and accessible application process does not require SAT, ACT or IELTS scores. There are no admissions quotas for gender, ethnicity or country of origin. 

The admission process is a series of online challenges designed to show how the student thinks and communicates, and these do not require any preparation. According to current students and alumni, the challenges take little time and are quite fun to complete. To succeed, a student must demonstrate creative solutions for the various problems and walk through their thought process. 

Students also highlight their previous achievements in academics or innovation. These can range from winning an academic olympiad to founding a startup—anything that shows how the student excelled in their school, community or country. 

The whole process aims to find someone who can not only deal with a rigorous academic program but also survive an intense lifestyle, with extensive traveling, external internships, civic projects and social interactions with people worldwide. To ensure a diverse and successful field of candidates, the university follows a need-blind admissions policy, ensuring that every candidate is evaluated without regard for their ability to pay.

Students join the institution for a variety of personal reasons. Andriy Kashyrskyy, a 2023 graduate, said his main reason for choosing Minerva was to “embark on a self-development journey that wouldn’t be possible in any other place.” Likewise, Masha Vysotska, also a 2023 graduate, shared that she was swayed by the traveling opportunities.

Nurturing the Talent

MU’s entire curriculum is grounded in the science of learning, and its development was directed by world-renowned cognitive scientist Stephen Kosslyn. In their first year, students learn about habits of mind (HCs) that help them think critically and creatively and communicate and interact effectively. Students receive a score on these HCs and have a chance to improve their scores as they progress through their studies. 

There is no cramming before exams—there are no exams in general. The focus is on accumulating knowledge, ongoing improvement and applying the acquired skills to various disciplines over time.

“Academic rigor is often code for ‘our classes feel hard, and students don’t like them, but it’s good for them to be pushed’,” said Christine Looser, a senior academic director of Minerva Project. “Pushing people isn’t a problem, but you have to consider what you are pushing them towards. If you’re pushing them towards an exam that asks them to memorize and regurgitate knowledge they could have looked up on the internet, that’s a waste of pushing people.”

Classes are conducted in an online active learning environment called Minerva Forum, where the average student-to-professor ratio is 13:1. There are no lectures, no passive listening and no slacking in class. The forum class is a room for discussion, open questions and active participation. 

“Minerva Project designs programs that push students towards application,” said Looser. “We ask learners to identify places where those applications will help them solve real-world problems and ensure faculty give them feedback on their application.”

Learning Beyond the Classroom

According to Kayla Krupnick Walsh, a vice president of student affairs, MU follows a structured approach to integrate experiential learning with academic coursework. The Student Life team continually trains in the academic curriculum, ensuring a fundamental grasp of the educational philosophy and course progressions. 

In addition, an assistant dean spearheads academic and student life collaborations, meeting regularly with faculty to align course requirements with real-world applications. This dean develops frameworks for meaningful connections between classroom and practical experiences, driven partly by the institutional mandate for “location-based assignments” in every course. To pass a location-based assignment, a student must identify a problem in their current city, interact with stakeholders and come up with plausible solutions using the frameworks learned in class.

Students are encouraged to engage in civic projects (semester-long internship-like projects with local partners). This allows them to apply the knowledge gained in classes to solve real-world problems and learn about different team dynamics and communication styles. The community receives measurable benefits, and the students gain invaluable practical experience.

Providing Life-Long Support

One of the integral parts of Minerva University as it prepares its students for the challenges of the future is the life-long support of the Coaching and Talent Development team. From their first semester, all students are matched with a MU coach who helps them navigate their Minerva journey. Alumni also have access to coaches, who help them navigate their changing lives and careers. 

Rachel Kim, senior coach and global director of coaching and talent development at MU, said she sees the collaboration and integration across the university, including first year’s common curriculum and global rotation, as integral to students’ further success. All MU students have the same cornerstone classes during their first year to build ground knowledge in empirical and formal analyses, multimodal communications and complex systems. Thus, it ensures that faculty, staff and students—although diverse—can “speak the same language.” 

Global rotation forces students out of their comfort zones to communicate with external partners and navigate various working environments. Minerva coaches support students each semester in making connections between the skills and knowledge gained in the classroom and testing and nurturing these in the real world through civic projects, internships and volunteer work.

Kim said many students from countries other than the United States choose Minerva University to raise their socioeconomic status. They want to make money and gain skills not just for personal reasons but to support their families and communities. They want to take what they learn and bring it back to their countries, eventually.

However, some students fall in love with the host countries and cultures and choose to pursue their careers or further education in other locations. Among the rotation cities, Berlin is one of the top choices to live after graduation. San Francisco is also high on the list because of the high prevalence of tech graduates within the program.

Regardless of where they settle, students retain the global perspective gained during their time at Minerva. One of Minerva’s first graduates was originally from China. They are now the CEO and co-founder of a banking app designed for people in Mexico who are excluded from the credit system. According to Kim, the university’s global rotations give students a perspective on existing problems outside their home countries and allow them to build international networks 

Check out more stories of recent Minerva University graduates here.

Scaling Impact

Now that Minerva University is a standalone non-profit academic institution, the Minerva Project continues to grow and work with other universities to create more innovative, evidence-based and effective learning programs.

“Minerva Project has worked with a wide range of institutions, from large public universities to small, well-funded private universities, and even built universities from scratch,” said Looser. “One of the biggest challenges we face is helping internal stakeholders realize that just because they’ve done something a certain way in the past doesn’t mean it has to be that way in the future. People don’t hate change, but they don’t always react well to being changed by someone else.”

Universities are notoriously resistant to innovation, and the institutional methods largely look the same from school to school. Further, the value of a degree is increasingly being questioned because learners and employers do not often see its relevance to life after university. Schools like Minerva University are part of a growing interest in challenging the status quo.

“A network-based approach to change is essential; our greatest strength is learning from each other,” said Looser. “Transformation is not an easy road, but it’s one others have trod in the past: connect with them, learn from their mistakes, make new ones and share your learning. No matter how challenging change is, it’s far better than becoming obsolete.”

 

Maryna Yankovska

Maryna Yankovska

Editorial Staff

Maryna Yankovska works as an editorial intern at Volt. Maryna graduated with a BS in Business and Social Sciences from Minerva University, which made her passionate about implementing the science of learning principles in education and, of course, traveling.


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