Minerva University skips grades and tests for something more important

The world is a classroom for Minerva University students who get hands-on experience way outside the lecture hall. 
An abstract photo of Minerva University in San Francisco, California

Minerva University is taking everything we know about traditional education — tests, classrooms, long hours on campus — and turning it into what most people really need from college: Real-world direction. 

Four years. Seven cities. Zero tests. It’s a new university called Minerva.

“Higher education is long overdue for fundamental reform,” says Ben Nelson, who founded Minerva University in 2012. “You sit in a lecture hall, and you take an exam. That exam measures only one thing, which is short-term recall of information.”

Minerva doesn’t have tests, or even classrooms. Students spend time in cities across the world and, through on-the-ground exploration, learn to problem solve and gain other real-world experiences. All the while, they take remote classes and apply their learnings and new skills to their areas of interest. It’s a model getting attention from even traditional universities.

Rather than prepare students to fit the mold of the workplace, Minerva  encourages students to become social entrepreneurs and changemakers. To accomplish this, they are sent out into the world, a true “school of life.”

“It’s practical education grounded in the real world,” says Nelson.

Minerva practices what education should be: A place where students are free to follow their skills and interests and apply them for mutual benefit. By rejecting top-down, one-size-fits-all constraints that can hold back true learning, students are given a better way that allows them to flourish, not flounder. 

It’s working. Only a decade after starting, Minerva University is leading students on a path to success — and it may transform educational institutions across the country. 

Improving higher education by making the world a classroom 

Many schools claim to prioritize hands-on, real-world learning, but Minerva goes far beyond offering the typical summer internships or after-school programs. 

Students spend their four-year undergraduate program in seven different cities across the world, where students are encouraged to engage in “intentional exploration.”

“Everything is different about teaching at Minerva,” says Katie McAllister, a Minerva professor.

Active participation is encouraged during lectures and discussions. Minerva’s education strengthens practical knowledge and addresses contemporary issues. The curriculum focuses on the intersections between science, arts, and humanities. 

Students grow through critical and creative thinking. Professors encourage communication and interaction. The goal is to cultivate students who are curious, empathetic, and adaptable. 

City-specific learning experiences allow students to apply theory to reality. At Minerva, working and exploring are equal to discussions and coursework. 

“I think education should really be an active process,”  says Amanda, a Minerva student. Before enrolling, she had never left her home country of Brazil. Now, she is studying in Berlin, Germany, with her peers. Through her studies, she wants to understand the science behind Alzheimer’s Disease and preventative treatments. By 25, supported by her education at Minerva University, she wants to become a cosmopolite: “someone who feels at home in any place in the world.”

At Minerva University, students solve real-world problems

Students understand their strengths, goals, and interests better than anyone. Minerva’s curriculum is completely flexible, allowing students the ability to mold courses to their own interests.

“We are not siloing students within academic disciplines, but integrating them into society,” says Nelson.

No matter what their personal career choice is, all students gain universal skills, including decision-making, problem-solving, and creative thinking. 

For instance, in Berlin, Pablo explored Templehofer Feld’s green spaces through the lens of his interest in augmented reality design. In Hyderabad, India, Aspen used her passion for social justice and journalism to undertake program development for a local women’s empowerment organization. 

“They are solving impactful, real-world problems on the ground,” McAllister says. “They really get out there in these cities and sort of knock on doors.”

Other students’ interests range from figuring out how to responsibly integrate A.I. into daily life, to using the media as a catalyst for social change. All of them identify problems in the city around them and work together toward innovative solutions. 

“You actually have to teach them in ways that students can then apply them in the real world,” Nelson says. 

In doing so, they’re strengthening their muscles for teamwork, problem solving, communication, and resilience. This sets them up for success for the years to come, far more than short-term memorization would. 

The future will undoubtedly change in ways we can’t predict. Minerva University ensures students are prepared no matter what comes their way. 

How Minerva could be a blueprint for higher education reform

Minerva has the potential to transform educational institutions as we know them — and other schools are starting to take notice. 

Other universities, including Zayed University in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and the University of Miami in Florida, are beginning to explore and incorporate similar real-world, flexible learning styles as well. In 2022 and 2023, Minerva University was ranked the Most Innovative University in the World by Worlds’ Universities with Real Impact.

“The reason that we launched Minerva University was in order to demonstrate to the world that you could take the most socioeconomically diverse student body of any selective university on the planet, and generate educational outcomes that exceed any other university, such that other universities would be inspired to reform themselves,” says Nelson. 

Minerva University is supported by Stand Together Trust, which provides funding and strategic capabilities to innovators, scholars, and social entrepreneurs to develop new and better ways to tackle America’s biggest problems.

Learn more about Stand Together’s education efforts.