Opinion: What does a bachelor’s degree signify in 2022?

I am a university president and I couldn't tell you.
Mike Magee
Mike Mageehttps://www.minerva.edu/
Mike Magee is the President of Minerva University. Before joining Minerva, he was the founding CEO of Chiefs for Change, a non-profit organization supporting leaders of many of the nation’s largest and most innovative K-12 public education systems. Previously, Magee co-founded and was CEO of Rhode Island Mayoral Academies (RIMA). As CEO of RIMA, he built a statewide network of regional, racially, and economically diverse public schools while successfully advocating for sweeping changes to state education policy.

As college students have come back to campus, most have returned to the conventional pursuit of the long-lauded bachelor’s degree, the prerequisite qualification since time immemorial to apply to nearly every job with a decent wage and reliable career path. But in 2022—at a time of record-high inflation and widespread labor shortages—what exactly does a bachelor’s degree, in and of itself, signify? And what is it really worth? I’m a university president and I couldn’t tell you. At least not for those conferred via the traditional model.

To be clear, I am less concerned with what this means for employers and universities than what it means for students. Imagine being a young person today, told blandly that obtaining a bachelor’s degree is “what you’re supposed to do” – the “key” to your career path or upward social mobility. You’d likely do it grudgingly, but these are not motivating calls to action. A university and its students should be in consensus about the purpose of a degree. Would you buy a house or a vehicle without carefully assessing how much either cost relative to the impact the investment will have on your life—now and in the future? Doubtful. This begs the question: shouldn’t prospective college students and their parents put a potential investment in higher education through the same type of rigorous cost-benefit analysis?

As its new president, I have reflected on why a Minerva University degree holds greater value, one far beyond the “general requirement” into the professional world. It started with this: we had a vision for the type of student we wanted to serve, and how we wanted to nurture them on their future paths, and we designed around that vision. We asked ourselves how do we create a model that produces the impact that the world needs? How do we push students beyond the goal of a degree and encourage them to see the bigger picture?

What it came down to? A degree from Minerva isn’t the goal —it’s a degree that indicates a student has developed intellectual skills that enable them to address cross-contextual problems at a personal, organizational, and global level. A Minerva degree ensures that graduates have developed intercultural competencies alongside a global community of passionate, purpose-driven leaders who can work to solve the world’s greatest challenges.

Minerva University is a carefully orchestrated combination of mutually reinforcing innovations. One thing that makes it so innovative and unique is its commitment to cultural immersion. Minerva is a U.S. institution, with no campus—or rather, its “campus” comprises seven cities across the globe. Over their four-year undergraduate experience, students live and learn in London, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Hyderabad, San Francisco, Seoul, and Taipei. They do so with classmates who hail from over eighty countries. They live in residence halls in the thick of these cities. To eat, they venture out—either to dine or to shop and return to cook together in communal kitchens.

However, Minerva is not “study abroad.” There is no way to say who is abroad and who isn’t in the global community we’ve created. Nor is it tourism. We treat cultural competency and understanding as an essential life skill—a skill students will surely need throughout their four years at Minerva and into their future endeavors. With the support of faculty and staff, our students quickly realize that to navigate they must collaborate, and to collaborate they must begin to understand and empathize with one another across every possible line of difference. Project-based opportunities in our rotation cities are one way in which our students have a chance to extend their classroom learnings into the real world.

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Our program is interdisciplinary by design. Every student takes four Cornerstone courses in the first year, focused on developing the habits of mind and foundational concepts that underlie four core competencies—thinking critically, thinking creatively, communicating effectively, and interacting effectively. These competencies serve as a foundational frame of reference that informs further study in course offerings deeply committed to the teaching of complex problem-solving. These concepts enable students to be successful thinkers, no matter what field they go into. Students learn in small virtual seminars built specifically for synchronous instruction. There’s no going off camera or watching a lecture later. In each session, a professor trained in the science of active learning prompts fewer than twenty classmates to participate in the lively exchange of ideas and deep engagement with course material. Students move fluidly between breakout groups as they travel throughout each city and around the world.

For Minerva’s students, a bachelor’s degree isn’t the goal, it’s a step toward one’s desired impact on society. As Warren Bennis and Robert J. Thomas wrote, “the skills required to conquer adversity and emerge stronger and more committed than ever are the same ones that make for extraordinary leaders.” We teach these skills with intention at Minerva, in immersive learning environments that require them. What would it look like to design a university where cultural understanding and productive struggle are among the highest values? To build a learning model that produces the impact the world needs? Where the goal is to nurture leaders who, in a generation, might solve pandemics, the climate crisis, and longstanding geopolitical conflicts? Minerva University is one answer to these questions and its innovations will undoubtedly lead to others.

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