Imagine a traveling university with no campus. You share food and space in a residence hall with 100 of your peers, but instead of attending lectures, you learn from the world around you. On most days, you and up to 20 classmates engage in intimate, discourse-heavy webcam forums with professors who might be teaching from Boston, Budapest, Los Angeles, or even an airplane seat. On other days, you may learn how to write a libretto from scratch at the San Francisco Opera, brainstorm with venture capitalists at a tech incubator, or train as a “compassionate responder” at local emergency services nonprofit Concrn.
The Minerva Project is an experimental (but accredited) for-profit college based in San Francisco. There are no lecture halls and few physical facilities, and there is no fixed campus. While working on a four-year bachelor’s or master’s degree, students live and study in a succession of seven cities around the world: San Francisco, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Seoul, Bangalore, Istanbul, and London. The classes are virtual, the course load is rigorous, and all classes count toward one of Minerva’s five liberal-arts majors. The student experience team in each city works to curate immersive, culturally relevant educational opportunities (such as spending a day at the San Francisco Opera).
“We believe in active learning and learning in context, not the traditional lecture model,” explains Norian Caporale-Berkowitz, the student experience manager for the San Francisco portion of the program. “Engagement leads to higher retention. There are a lot of things that can be learned in person that are hard to learn remotely—experiences that you just can’t have through passive transfer.”
This is not a study-abroad program—at least not in the traditional sense. Roughly 10 percent of U.S. university students explore study-abroad programs, but these semesters often mute academic involvement in favor of a cultural whirlwind. Students return to their home universities after a few months, and the serious work begins anew. At Minerva, however, there is no distinction between traveling and learning. A foreign city prompts new perspectives, and each idiosyncrasy of the experience is an opportunity to grow.
The seven-cities-in-four-years plan may sound like an expensive privilege, but the administrators at Minerva are able to keep students’ tuition costs down to $10,000 per year by focusing on the education and eliminating the bulky operational infrastructure. Among its students, 78 percent come from outside the United States, and a high percentage of them have financial aid. Despite the relative accessibility, the program is certainly not for everyone.
“We are preparing students for jobs and global challenges that don’t exist yet,” Caporale-Berkowitz says. ”I think the students who apply to Minerva are the ones who are constantly wanting to push the boundaries of their experience. They want to be on the edge.”
German-born Minerva student Julian Grosse, a member of the inaugural class, is double-majoring in social sciences and computational sciences. This summer, he is interning at the Minerva offices in Berlin, preparing for the second official year of instruction to begin there in September. He and the other interns are taking an active role in developing four city-specific themes for the semester’s curriculum: identity, refugees, arts and social change, and crossroads.
“Once you taste the experience of going abroad, living in another country for a while, you can’t get away from it anymore,” says Grosse. “I think once I go to seven countries and learn the languages, get to understand some of the cultures, I’ll be well-prepared for continuing that journey in my professional life.”
Grosse says that the virtual classes and the unconventional structure do not mean a lack of academic engagement. Quite the opposite, in fact: “What I’ve found surprising, frankly, is that I feel like I connect to my teachers a lot more than I used to. Even though we aren’t physically in the same room, I actually get to know them on a personal level.”
Grosse entered Minerva on the arts and sciences track, but the school’s fluid academic structure led him to create a socially oriented computational track. This kind of academic self-iteration is the norm at Minerva, where students are exposed to a diverse array of influences and are encouraged to take their time to choose a direction.
“I think students at Minerva have very broad interests and get excited about a lot of different things,” he says. “We have a lot of time to experience different fields before we have to make a final decision, so to speak.”
Grosse is an anomaly for someone who has come up in the famously rigid German school system. Most of his peers have already chosen strict and unwavering university-to-career tracks.
“I think [what I’m doing] feels very remote and weird for a lot of people,” he says, “because it is so different. Like, studying in the U.S. would be different already, but the fact that Minerva will travel around the world and the online classes—it just doesn’t make sense to a lot of people.”
Indeed, Minerva is young and unproven, and its model remains revolutionary. In true startup form, the staff is constantly iterating—tweaking the program using educational data and student surveys. The institution was founded in 2012, and it is still three years away from graduating its first class of students. Yet both students and facilitators are passionate about the promise of experiential education.
“In five years, I think Minerva will be global,” says Grosse. “We’ll have places around the world where students are continuously living, and I think—I hope—that we’ll grow into a gigantic network. The program is special because the alumni of Minerva, not only will they be from all over the world, but they’ll have [a network of welcoming] places all over the world.”
Back in San Francisco, Caporale-Berkowitz quotes the novelist William Gibson: “The future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed.” He continues, “Higher education is not on a sustainable path. Students are paying an inordinate amount of money to attend institutions that don’t always incorporate the best principles of learning. The time is right for truly global university programs that use the science of learning and are accessible and affordable. Minerva is so, so far from being seven study-abroad programs strung together.”