There’s a lot wrong with higher education.
Persistent marginalization of minority groups. Increasing tuition costs. Massive budget deficits. Policies and procedures that foster inequities and solidify barriers to inclusion. A lack of adequate resources for mental health services despite rising cases of mental health issues.
I’m going to spend the next few weeks taking a closer look at higher education. I’m not going to focus specifically on any of those issues I mentioned, though. Instead, I’m going to look at higher education through the lens of some unconventional but remarkably creative programs that have reimagined what higher education can, and in some cases, should look like. What about college is essential, and what is not? What ways of organizing and structuring make solving certain issues nearly impossible? How does the University of Connecticut’s position as a large state school give it an opportunity—and actually a responsibility—to make change in an impactful way?
These are just some of the questions that I’ll explore in the next couple of weeks. I don’t have all—or maybe even any—of the answers to these questions, but I hope that by examining them from different angles, we are able to think about some of these issues in a more creative, yet practical, and altogether hopeful way.
This week and the next, I’m focusing on Minerva College, which was founded just eight years ago. The basic Minerva philosophy is this: A liberal arts education is really important, especially one that teaches critical, logical and independent thinking while also helping students to cultivate passion for something in a socially conscious way. However, the institutions that claim to do this best (think Ivy League schools) have models and traditions that are fundamentally flawed in their ability to do just that — so a different model is necessary.
Minerva College’s model is undoubtedly different. There is no Minerva campus. Instead, students live in seven different cities over the course of four years. In each location, the students live together in Minerva housing, which usually means students occupy a building leased by the college in a part of the city. These locations are specifically chosen for their proximity to public transport and stores, safety, and their representation of city life and culture beyond touristic attractions. All Minerva courses are online, but students live and travel with one another. Staff members also design trips and involvement opportunities throughout the semester that are focused on a theme relevant to that city, such as “rapid development” in Seoul or “entrepreneurship” in San Francisco.
It might sound like a scam or a cult, but it’s not. Professors at Minerva College have held positions at Harvard Medical School, Stanford, Cambridge, Barnard and the University of Pennsylvania. They have worked for the U.S. State Department, World Bank, The Economist and Princeton Review. The first dean of Minerva, Stephen Kosslyn, is a well-known neuroscientist and psychologist who was formerly the Dean of Social Sciences at Harvard.
There are important takeaways from Minerva’s model. Minerva chooses not to focus on providing the infrastructure and organizational structures that we usually expect from universities, like designated meeting spaces, hundreds of established student organizations, sports teams and funding for equipment and events. None of these things are bad, but Minerva’s model has students create their own extracurriculars in each city with the support of staff. It’s an interesting experiment, seeing what happens if all these things that we consider an integral part of an educational institution were to fall away. What would be left behind? What would take its place? Would everything about what college is supposed to be fall apart?
Minerva suggests that no, everything won’t fall apart. On the contrary, if providing all the structures for cultivating student interests becomes secondary, and instead, the priority is to create an environment that supports students independently in figuring out creative ways to cultivate those interests themselves, those goals of a liberal arts education are more likely to be fulfilled.
For institutions like UConn, Minerva’s example suggests an alternative to salvaging when faced with budget deficits: prioritize guaranteed and strong support for students to pursue their interests in organic and personally meaningful ways that are not reliant on elaborate institutional structures. When those institutional structures are necessary, economize on the flashy and focus on maintaining only what is absolutely essential for individual student development of those interests. Then, when circumstances force universities to change their modes of operation and make reductions, it won’t seem like it’s all falling apart. Instead, it’s exactly at those moments when students will feel emboldened to pursue their interests and passions all the more.
There are more lessons to be learned from Minerva: but we’ll save those for next week.