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Higher Education Innovation: 25 Examples of Excellence

Creating the Future of Education

“As leaders in education, our job is not to control those whom we serve, but to unleash their talent. If innovation is going to be a priority in education, we need to create a culture where trust is the norm.” –George Couros

As technology advances and the job market becomes more competitive, what it means to receive “a good education” is changing rapidly. A number of colleges and universities have quickly adapted to the change and are preparing students for the jobs of tomorrow. The fields of studies offered at these innovative universities are expanding to include: artificial intelligence, new media, engineering, bioscience, and even food innovation.

These higher education institutions are innovating, and that’s why we’ve decided to celebrate these 25 examples of excellence in the field.

This article is brought to you in partnership with Vemo Education, an educational technology company that creates custom income share agreement programs for world class universities.

Vemo Education is changing education by working with higher ed institutions to implement income-based financing programs that more effectively use institutional resources. If you are interested in bringing these solutions to your college, get in touch here.

Arizona State University

Arizona State University has been a technology pioneer and innovator for decades. Since 2003, ASU has filed 2,700 invention disclosures, issued 800 tech licenses, and helped launch more than 100 startups.

Whether it is their Knowledge Enterprise Development or futuristic initiatives like Project Hieroglyph, they’re one to watch. Let’s take a quick look at these two fascinating areas of ASU.

Knowledge Enterprise Development program

ASU’s Knowledge Enterprise Development program “advances research, innovation, strategic partnerships, entrepreneurship, and international development.” This program is one of the fastest growing research enterprises in the US.

By encouraging interdisciplinary research and an entrepreneurial approach in all its students, ASU has become a haven for cross-discipline, out-of-the-box projects, such as a recent study which combines engineering and biology to analyze protein structures in a new light.

Project Hieroglyph

Can science fiction serve as inspiration for actual innovation?

Yes, it can, and ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination has started Project Hieroglyph to help bring those ideas to fruition.

“The name of Project Hieroglyph comes from the notion that certain iconic inventions in science fiction stories serve as modern ‘hieroglyphs’ — Arthur Clarke’s communications satellite, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ship that lands on its fins, Issac Asimov’s robot, and so on. Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research described hieroglyphs as simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.”

The project challenges students to think inventively and imagine a better future — gleaning inspiration from anywhere and everywhere, including the science fiction stories and content that provide a bit of a roadmap for future innovations.

Syracuse University

Syracuse University is a selective, private research university that only takes chances on those who dare to dream big. Its pioneering history dates back to 1870, and the school is known for its forward-thinking veteran education programs.

Vet Programs

In 1944, Syracuse University played a key role in establishing the original G.I. Bill. Since then, they’ve been honoring that legacy through the creation of new veteran education programs.

One such example is Syracuse’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF). The IVMF is the first interdisciplinary higher education institute solely focused on assisting military veterans and their families.

Syracuse University will also soon be the home to the nation’s first National Veterans Resource Complex, currently under construction. This center will be “dedicated to advancing academic research, actionable programs, and community-connected innovation in service to the nation’s veterans and military-connected families.”

Cal State East Bay

Ranking as one of the most diverse four-year public colleges in the nation, Cal State East Bay is taking a new, more diverse approach to education. This year, U.S. News and World Report ranked CSU East Bay №1 for ethnic diversity in regional universities of the West. And in 2017, the Chronicle of Higher Education elected it the “Most Diverse Public Institution in the Continental United States.” Thanks to their distinctive MBA program, it’s also a leader in global innovation.

MBA for Global Innovators

CSU East Bay’s MBA for Global Innovators is a unique kind of MBA program — it creates an incubator environment that mimics the international business world. This program allows MBA-seeking students to work with experienced professionals and entrepreneurs to learn the ins and outs of global innovation.

The MBA for Global Innovators program focuses on: teaching global awareness of business opportunities and how to pursue them; expanding worldview of the global economy; teaching how to respond to dynamic situations as an innovator; honing leadership and collaborative skills; teaching how to manage and motivate others in complex environments; and teaching how to develop sound business plans and present ideas effectively.

Purdue University

Since 1869, Purdue University has long been committed to providing students with quality education. It is the #1 destination for international students in STEM disciplines and home to the “Back a Boiler” program.

Just last year, 15 startups were founded based on new tech owned by Purdue faculty, staff, or students, and 21 companies were launched using Purdue intellectual property.

Back a Boiler

Purdue’s Back a Boiler program utilizes Income Share Agreements (ISAs) to make paying for college more affordable.

ISAs allow colleges to pay a portion, or all, of a student’s tuition up front. In exchange, when the student graduates and is able to find a job past a certain minimum income threshold, the student begins making a certain number of payments until they are finished. These payments are a small fraction of their salary. Once the student has completed the payments, they keep 100% of their salary.

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo is a nationally-ranked public university that is consistently recognized as one of the nation’s best values for graduates’ return on investment. Driven by its core philosophy of “Learn by Doing”, students are challenged to put what they learn into practice in a real-world setting.

Innovation Sandbox

Cal Poly’s Innovation Sandbox is a shared workspace that allows students to “play” with the latest prototyping/ideation tools, explore new subjects, develop technologies, and share knowledge.

The space is equipped with state-of-the-art equipment, educational programs, and student mentors from all disciplines. Students are encouraged to use the Innovation Sandbox to not only apply what they’ve learned in the classroom, but to collaborate with others to develop their own theories, experiments, and projects.

The Dairy Innovation Institute

Fun Fact: Cal Poly is also home to The Dairy Innovation Institute, a globally recognized institute for dairy foods research and education.

Students can study cheese science and technology, dairy foods quality, dairy ingredients technology, and novel process technologies. Lactose intolerant folk, beware!

University of Southern California

University of Southern California is a leading private research university and a global center for arts, technology, and international business. Their Health Sciences campus also houses cutting edge research in cancer, stem cells, regenerative medicine, orthopedics, and sports medicine. USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies is also making waves, working with studios like Warner Bros and Sony Pictures Entertainment to study how people engage with simulations and to develop more realistic CGI in movies.

Outside of the classroom, USC is the largest private sector employer in the city of Los Angeles and is responsible for $8 billion annually in economic activity in the region.

Masters in Business Veteran Program

USC’s Masters in Business Veteran Program (MBV) is a fully accredited one-year graduate degree created specifically for military veterans, active duty, and reserve personnel. It provides an understanding of all business disciplines and is designed to leverage participants’ management and leadership experience already gained during military service.

Mixed Reality

Mixed Reality (MxR) is part of the USC Institute for Creative Technologies. The project explores techniques and technologies to improve the fluency of human-computer interactions. Their current prototypes focus on immersive systems for education and training simulations that incorporate both real and virtual elements.

Oberlin College

Oberlin College has been changing education since day one. They were the first to admit African Americans AND the first to admit women. Oberlin College is known for its intense energy, creativity, and, according to historian Geoffrey Blodgett, “stubborn moral idealism.”

“With a top-ranking liberal arts college, a world-class conservatory, and a first-rate art museum all on a single campus, it is the ideal laboratory in which to study and design the world you want.” -About Oberlin

Creativity & Leadership

Oberlin’s Creativity and Leadership Program challenges students to hone their intellectual and artistic passions. The program provides support by offering academic courses, funding for project development, guest lectures, and experiential learning opportunities.

This program reflects Oberlin’s commitment to artistic excellence, academic rigor, and preparing students for leadership and civic engagement.

The Oberlin Project

The Oberlin Project is just one way Oberlin College is encouraging better care of our environment. The goal of the project is to create “a resilient, prosperous, and sustainable community” by shifting the city and college to renewable energy sources.

Full Sail

Full Sail offers accelerated degree programs that allow students to graduate in approximately half the time required to complete a traditional bachelor’s degree program. Their fast-paced courses are designed to build upon each other, making it easier for instructors to provide an individualized educational experience.

Dan Patrick Sportscasting Program

An innovative education model is combined with Dan Patrick’s years of industry experience in these hands-on courses. Dan Patrick Sportscasting Program includes on-camera experience in voice training and live presentation and covers behind-the-scenes skills such as journalism and multimedia storytelling. There is also a heavy focus on emerging tech and broadcast opportunities such as gaming, virtual reality, and augmented reality.

Master of Science: Innovation & Entrepreneurship

This degree dives deep into product design and development to suit the needs of our rapidly growing and changing global marketplace. Students tackle real-world projects that teach them how to apply their skills and innovative strategies to existing businesses in need of fresh perspectives.

Babson College

Babson College provides students with a top-of-the-line business education, including global research projects that are used as key benchmarking indicators by supranational authorities around the world. It’s no surprise that their MBA and MS degrees are highly ranked.

Entrepreneurial Thought & Action

Babson’s Entrepreneurial Thought & Action methodology is highly respected in the business world. The college has been the number one leader in entrepreneurship for 25 consecutive years. Through their “Act, Learn, Build” motto, students learn experimentation and creativity with a deep understanding of business fundamentals and rigorous analysis as the ideal approach to creating economic and social value.

Social Innovation Lab

The Social Innovation Lab at Babson connects people and ideas in order to prototype, evaluate, and prove new social innovation in real-world contexts. It’s the hub of a global, interdisciplinary community that is dedicated to building a better world.

Olin College

Malcolm Gladwell loves this innovative school. It’s a “new kind of engineering college” that believes “engineering is a creative enterprise that begins and ends with people and their desire for a better world.”

Transforming Engineering Education

Olin College is passionate about Transforming Engineering Education. The school was “founded to become an important and constant contributor to the advancement of engineering education in America and throughout the world.” Faculty members engage in education research, education consulting, and the development of innovative, research-based student learning opportunities.

Affordable Design and Entrepreneurship

Affordable Design and Entrepreneurship, or ADE, is one of Olin’s year-long senior capstone programs. It can also be taken as a one-semester design depth in which faculty and students work together to improve aspects of human life. These include food security, education, air quality, and many other areas of importance.

University of California — Berkeley

UC Berkeley is the number one public university in the nation and the number four public university in the entire world. Their research “crosses disciplines and illuminates new ideas”, pioneering since their expeditions to Egypt in the late 1800s.

The University of California System (which includes all of UC’s 10 campuses) is responsible for filing 2,382 patents from 2010 to 2015, 33% of which were granted.


SkyDeck is UC Berkeley’s startup accelerator. It has a dedicated fund that donates half of all profits back to the university at large and accepts applications from companies in all industries to foster a well-rounded program. SkyDeck is “where entrepreneurs come to create the innovative companies that will better our world.”

Fung Institute for Engineering Leadership

The Fung Institute for Engineering and Leadership is “transforming engineers and scientists into leaders who develop technical, social, and economic innovations”. It expertly combines leadership coursework with intensive study for a truly innovative program.

Ivy Tech Community College (Indiana)

Ivy Tech Community College offers hands-on experience with some of Indiana’s most advanced technologies and training facilities. It has more than 1,000 online classes and more than 40 locations.

Innovation Day

Ivy Tech’s Innovation Day was created last year in order to improve all areas of the college and the real world. Participants bring their most innovative ideas before a panel of judges who are looking for one or more powerful ideas for which they can provide funding.

Iowa State University

Iowa State University has earned the title of “the nation’s most student-centered public research university” through its revolutionary research in numerous areas of study. Cutting edge technology meets innovative ideas in its various laboratories.

Nanovaccine Institute

The Nanovaccine Institute is “revolutionizing how we prevent and treat disease”, one day at a time. Coordinated by Iowa State, 68 researchers at 20 universities, research institutes, national laboratories, and companies are merging immunology, nanotechnology, materials science, microbiology, neuroscience, cancer biology, clinical science, and social science to create a better world.

Bioeconomy Institute

The Bioeconomy Institute “seeks to advance the use of biorenewable resources for the production of fuels, energy, chemicals, and materials. The Institute will assure Iowa’s prominence in the revolution that is changing the way society obtains its essential sources of energy and carbon.” In essence, we will reduce our dependence on petroleum by using biomass as a renewable resource to “sustain economic growth and prosperity.”

Greenville Technical College

Greenville Technical College is one of the largest public two-year colleges in South Carolina. It collaborates with community and business leaders to drive economic growth through workforce development, training students who are dedicated to lifelong learning.

Center for Manufacturing and Innovation (CMI)

Greenville’s Center for Manufacturing and Innovation (CMI) builds on an educational partnership with Clemson University and is strongly supported by area manufacturers. This innovative curriculum features project-based learning experiences on real-world projects. Programs are flexible and customizable, allowing students to find their unique place in advanced manufacturing. The CMI offers machine tool tech, CNC machining, mechatronics, and much more.

Ohio State University

Ohio State University ranks 16th among the nation’s best universities and 1st among Ohio publics in academics. Additionally, they have 57 active startups in their portfolio. Between their unprecedented affordability commitment and their excellent health care system (Wexner Medical Center has been named one of the country’s best by U.S. News & World Report for 25 years), innovation is front and center at this school.


CubeRRT is Ohio State’s first satellite, launched on May 20th of this year. The project was named after “Q*bert”, one of the most popular video arcade games of the 1980s. CubeRRT’s creators aim to improve how scientists collect data from Earth.


Innovate is an annual conference that brings together educators, admins, and tech industry pros. Over the course of the event, they explore recent advancements, best practices, and provocative approaches to teaching and learning with tech.

University of Maryland University College

University of Maryland University College specializes in high-demand academic programs, making this school a convenient option for busy professionals who are looking to gain experience. They take pride in their achievement-based admissions process, which does not require SAT, GRE, or GMAT test scores. And to top that off, their Center for Innovation in Learning and Student Success is “leading the search for next-generation learning models.”

Adaptive Learning

The college’s Open Learning Initiative Pilot applies adaptive technologies to meet students’ unique needs. This field “has the potential to address each student’s unique preferences, needs, and capabilities.” Adaptive technologies include intelligent use of learning management systems and sophisticated stand-alone tools that can be integrated into course learning environments. Though this program is still in its early stages, the school is confident that it will transform the way we view learning.

Predictive Analysis

UMUC’s CILSS is an industry leader in analyzing big data “to identify appropriate and effective learner interventions”. The program is bringing learning analytics to many student concerns, including choosing courses and making the most of study time.

The University of Chicago

The University of Chicago is one to watch. It’s currently ranked #3 in national universities. According UC President Robert J. Zimmer:

“The nature of rigorous inquiry at the highest level, in both research and education, requires an environment that fosters sustained open discourse. A commitment to such inquiry as our highest value has been an essential part of the University of Chicago’s culture since its inception.”

UChicago Empower

UChicago Empower is a new initiative that will no longer require standardized tests scores to be admitted as part of your application. The program is aimed at under-served and low-income students, for whom the prices of taking standard admission tests leave them with few options. Along with eliminating the testing mandate, the program will also offer a bevy of financial aid packages and more for those who might otherwise have been left out of the education process.

Michigan State University

Michigan State University is a top research institute that is acknowledged globally as a leader in international engagement. It’s also been recognized as one of the best value universities in the United States.

MSU is “advancing the common good in uncommon ways,” and their exceptional financial aid programs help assist all students do just that.

The MSU Spartan Advantage Program

Sometimes outside grants and scholarships don’t cover all of a student’s college tuition and expenses. That’s where MSU’s Spartan Advantage Program (SPAD) steps in.

SPAD “reduces the educational loan debt of our neediest Michigan students” by providing students with institutional grants, scholarships, and work-study opportunities. SPAD supplies students with the final financial assistance needed to fully cover tuition, fees, room, board, and even books.

Spelman College

Innovation is at the core of Spelman College. This school is “a global leader in the education of women of African descent.”

ExxonMobil WISE

ExxonMobil WISE uses funding from ExxonMobil to sponsor the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Scholars Program. It “provides scientifically talented students from groups underrepresented in scientific and engineering fields with the opportunity to pursue undergraduate studies in science and engineering in the highly motivating and supportive environment of Spelman College.”

Stanford University

Stanford University is a magnet for innovators and entrepreneurs, named the most innovative university in the world. It was a Stanford professor who designed the basic communication standard for the Internet, and alumni have founded companies such as Google, Intel, and Netflix.

From Reed Hastings to Peter Thiel to Larry Page and Sergey Brin, there’s a long line of former Stanford students who have changed business and the world. From 2010 to 2015 alone, Stanford filed for a whopping 636 patents, 40% of which were granted.

As can be seen by the type of people their program attracts, Stanford is truly “a place for learning, discovery, innovation, expression and discourse.”

Stanford Interdisciplinary

At Stanford Interdisciplinary, “collaboration is a way of life.” Faculty members seek out diverse patterns on the path to innovation, with interdisciplinary institutes spanning departments. Students are encouraged to take on research projects that cross traditional boundaries, and collaborations between these students and faculty members are central to the school’s culture.

Howard University

Howard University is an HBCU in Washington, D.C. Their motto is Veritas et Utilitas, which means Truth and Service. Howard University is thoroughly committed to this motto and to the education and advancement of underrepresented populations.

Verizon and Howard Partnership for STEM

Howard University and the Verizon Innovative Learning Program teamed up to offer STEM and technology courses to local minority male students in middle school.

“Every young man deserves access to a better future. That’s why we’ve launched the Verizon Innovative Learning Program for minority males — a dynamic, three-week summer program for middle school boys, where they’ll design thinking, 3D printing, augmented reality and social entrepreneurship.”

Johns Hopkins University

Johns Hopkins University is America’s first research institution. The school lacks a core curriculum, which they believe “fosters academic freedom.” Johns Hopkins has put more money into research than any other academic institution, 38 years in a row.

Around since 1876, Johns Hopkins University has been at the forefront of medical technology innovation. The university introduced the rubber glove, discovered saccharine, and developed a treatment for sickle cell anemia.

Social Innovation Lab (SIL)

The Social Innovation Lab (SIL) supports innovative non-profits, mission-driven companies, and disruptive technologies that aim to create change and opportunity in Baltimore and beyond. The lab is open to Baltimore-area world-changers, faculty, students, and staff, and provides social entrepreneurs with funding, mentorship, office space, and workshops.

Rice University

Rice University “practices need-blind admission, meets 100 percent of demonstrated need for admitted students and is consistently heralded as one of the best values in higher education.”

It is #3 in Best Undergraduate Teaching, was the nation’s first university to create a space-physics department, and recently had a team develop liquid batteries!

Bioscience Research Collaborative

Through Rice’s Bioscience Research Collaborative, scientists and educators from Rice and other Texas Medical Center institutions work together to perform leading research, benefiting human medicine and health. The program encourages interdisciplinary interactions among interinstitutional researchers and performs cutting-edge laboratory, theoretical, and computational investigations. According to their website, “… BRC is a catalyst for new and better ways for researchers to collaborate, explore, learn and lead.”

Allen University

Allen University is an HBCU in South Carolina that teaches “the mind to think, the hands to work and the heart to love.”

Honors Program

In Allen’s Honors Program, creative inquiry begins freshman year and ends with a capstone research project. Students receive special instruction in honors-designated courses and seminars and have the opportunity to attend conferences and participate in community outreach and experiential learning. They also participate in sustainability and campus beautification projects. The program offers a heavy focus on advocacy, activism, and art.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has an “appetite for problems — especially those big, intractable, complicated problems whose solutions make a permanent difference.” According to Reuters, it is the second most innovative college in the world after Stanford.

Since its founding in 1861, MIT has become the school for all things tech, math, and science. The school was granted nearly 600 patents from 2010 to 2015. MIT is also the home of MITx, an open-source platform that allows students all over the world to enroll in free online classes taught by the institute’s professors.

(Fun Fact: Their mascot is the beaver! It was chosen because of its “engineering and mechanical skill and habits of industry.”)

MIT International Center for Air Transportation

The MIT International Center for Air Transportation exists to improve the safety, sufficiency, and capacity of domestic and international air transportation and its infrastructure. It utilizes information tech and human-centered systems analysis to research Air Traffic Management, Air Transportation Infrastructure and Economics, Aviation Safety and Weather, Airline Management and Operations, Human Factors, Flight Instrumentation, and Environmental Impact of Aviation.

Interested in making your higher education institution more innovative? Connect with Vemo Education and learn how you can bring income-based student-financing solutions to your school.

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