A quality education during stable or unstable times

As universities around the world dig deeper into their waiting lists due to falling enrollment numbers, especially those of international students, the quality of their student bodies will surely suffer for the next academic year. This is compounded by a virtual teaching experience in the spring semester that left many students underwhelmed. Universities and colleges are facing an upward battle in maintaining an acceptable quality of higher education, increasingly under scrutiny, with high tuition fees and calls for educational reform from students and parents alike.

At Minerva School at Keck Graduate Institute (KGI), we’ve always had only one objective in mind: educating our students to become better decision makers for our volatile and unpredictable world. To achieve this objective we designed a thoughtful, deliberate curriculum that teaches skills such as decision-making, resilience and ethical communication based on the science of learning. It is delivered on a virtual platform intentionally designed to optimize for student engagement and assessment. This is why when the recent crisis happened, we did not need to pivot nor compromise on quality.

An unconventional admission criteria

From the onset, our admission criteria stands out from other US universities. We have never relied on SATs or ACTs, not simply out of the necessity that has arisen from COVID-19. We even administer our own English proficiency test for foreign students, rather than rely on the TOEFL. This is not because we wanted to reinvent the wheel, but rather because we wanted to ensure we admit students based on merit rather than socio-economic status. High achievement on standardized tests skews towards the wealthy who are able to prepare for them through private tutoring or paying for courses that specialize in maximizing test scores. We do not want to admit students who score well on tests but rather those who have a thirst and an ability to learn and adapt to a global environment. Instead we consider high school grades and accomplishments outside of class, in addition to applicants’ performance on a series of cognitive challenges and structured interviews.

Our classes are conducted remotely, while our students rotate to seven different cities in four years. We have no classrooms, no campus and we rent rather than own our residential halls, which gives us flexibility in case our enrolled students increase or decrease in number. This means that we do not have a physical limitation of the number of students we admit. We will admit any student that passes our admission criteria regardless of quotas, physical limitations or financial constraints. We do not have a waiting list or any tiered list which means that we do not make compromises when it comes to the student body.

This year, we received over 25,000 applications, from over 180 countries. Even with this increased interest, Minerva stayed committed to admitting only those students who would thrive in its program. Two hundred students were admitted, resulting in an acceptance rate of under 1%. For us, this is not a cause of celebration; we would like nothing more than to admit a multiple of the students that we do, but we will not lower the high standards that we hold ourselves and our students to.

A curriculum built for resilience

Every aspect of the Minerva curriculum is intentionally designed. Our goal is to provide multiple systems of thinking for our students by imparting a broadly applicable skill set: in addition to distinctive ways of looking at the world, our students acquire the range of tools necessary to make meaningful, positive change within it.

This means our curriculum does not change according to the popularity of a course or the availability of a professor to teach it. It is independent of external factors or crises, as it was built with student outcomes – and only, student outcomes – in mind. It was designed to prepare our students for a volatile and unpredictable world; the very world that they were thrown in amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

To augment this rigorous academic programming, Minerva devised a modern approach to experiential learning. Instead of a sequestered life on campus, students are immersed in the world, living and learning in seven diverse cultural contexts: After the first year in San Francisco, students spend the next six semesters rotating through Seoul, Hyderabad, Berlin, Buenos Aires, London, and Taipei. In each of these cities, students engage in a variety of experiential programs, including community projects, working with local businesses and government agencies, and student-centric activities like communal meals, club meetings, and hackathons.

Through this global rotation program, our students need to navigate new cities in languages they do not speak, and often, very foreign cultures they do not understand. This aspect of their educational experience obliges them to flex their adaptability muscle, thus building resilience for changing contexts they might find themselves in, as many did, when COVID-19 struck.

An intentional virtual platform

As millions of professors, teachers and students scrambled to migrate their classrooms online and finish the spring semester, it was business as usual for Minerva faculty and students at least as far as their classes were concerned. These classes were designed to be delivered on Forum™, the proprietary learning environment we designed to enable a kind of education that is not possible offline, let alone through other online web conferencing platforms.

Over the past seven years, we have developed and refined an educational approach, using decades of research into how people learn best, while utilizing more recent advances in interactive technology. Forum incorporates collaborative tools, polling, simulations, and small breakout discussions all allowing students to engage in meaningful learning. Faculty, on the other side, have a data-rich view, allowing them, for example, to see which students have talked more or less than average, thus enabling them to engage the more silent students. They can also go back and assess all oral and written engagement based on what was actually said, rather than relying on biased memories or perceptions.

As many universities around the world rethink their curricula and delivery platforms, we hope they join us in putting the students at the center. While many external factors such as costs, access and enrollment numbers will be important considerations while reshaping the education they offer, if student learning outcomes are the ultimate objective, no education experience needs to be compromised.

By Ben Nelson and Diana El-Azar,

Minerva Project

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