Our 15 Most Innovative Universities aren’t just educating the next generation of innovators; they themselves are pioneering new ways of developing and delivering higher education. Of course, there’s a lot of space to explore outside the educational “box”. Some schools focus on offering more flexible degree paths or unorthodox campus amenities, others look to enhance their existing programs through the use of technology or advanced research. “Interdisciplinary collaboration”, “open courseware”, “technology transfer”, and “research enterprise” are some of the latest buzzwords in university innovation. The schools in our ranking live up to those claims, having been consistently singled out for influential discoveries, accessible academics, support for innovation-based startups, integration of technology and research findings most widely cited. The majority of them are old, established schools which have deployed their considerable talent and equity to consistently evolve. Read on to discover how these 15 universities are changing the game in higher education.
Relative Placement on the following four studies on innovative higher education:
1. Stanford University
Stanford University is a private research university located in Stanford, California, between San Jose and San Francisco. It is one of the nation’s most selective and prestigious universities. The school was founded in 1855 and has a long history of innovation, both in terms of its entrepreneurial alumni, pioneering research and its creative educational delivery. Stanford was among the first schools make higher learning accessible, nonsectarian, and coeducational. Today, this progressive ideal is seen in residential theme housing, co-ops and resource centers dedicated to the support of specific student racial, gender and religious groups. Stanford also boasts one of the nation’s most environmentally sustainable campuses. The school leads in educational accessibility by offering hundreds of free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), in addition to high-quality, media-rich online classes. In addition to developing new approaches in education and student life, Stanford leads in preparing its students to be innovators. The school consistently yields some of the most widely-cited research and greatest numbers of patents. Alumni and faculty have contributed to major advances in medicine and computing, have won Turing Awards and Nobel Prizes, and have founded such powerful companies as Google, Instagram, Snapchat, and LinkedIn. Stanford’s proximity to Silicon Valley allows the school to place students in internships and experiential learning projects within the technology sector. The university also provides classroom education in Social Innovation through its school of business and in Innovation and Entrepreneurship through its Center for Professional Development. Stanford students also participate as University Innovation Fellows through the “d.school” program, collaborating with faculty and administrators in developing innovations in the school’s curriculum, campus and student life. For all-around excellence in multiple dimensions of innovation- accessibility, interdepartmental collaboration, influential research and entrepreneurship- Stanford tops our global list of Most Innovative Universities.
2. The University of Southern California
Founded in 1880, the University of Southern California (USC) is a large, private, non-profit research university based in Los Angeles. It is the most prestigious and oldest institution of higher learning in the state of California. The school is known for robust and well-funded research, and for producing successful entrepreneurs. Alumni have founded such companies as MySpace, LucasFilms, and Tinder, and the university has the fourth-highest number of billionaire alumni worldwide. USC is home to the world’s most powerful quantum computer, and has been the birthplace of such cutting edge-technologies as DNA computing, artificial retinas, dynamic programming, image compression, VoIP, and antivirus software. Through The USC Stevens Center for Innovation, the school supports its students and faculty’s research and inventions, offering grants, mentoring and competitions. The school also assists its inventors and innovators by providing intellectual property and development resources. The USC Marshall School of Business provides advanced training in Entrepreneurship, with a graduate program ranked 4th in the nation by U.S. News and World Report. USC’s twin strengths- creating new technology and developing new businesses- have placed this school on the cutting edge of innovation.
3. Arizona State University
Arizona State University (ASU) is a large, public research university with its main campus based in Tempe, Arizona. ASU was founded in 1885 and operates six additional campuses in the Phoenix Metropolitan Area. ASU is the nation’s largest public university by enrollment, with a total of 82,060 students. For the past three years, ASU has been ranked #1 in the coutry for Most Innovative School by U.S. News and World Report for advances in research, academic delivery, campus life and distance education. Research at ASU is robust and interdisciplinary, with students and faculty pioneering advances in energy efficiency, medicine, aerospace and defense. ASU’s academic model is built around an innovative interdisciplinary approach; disparate departments collaborate frequently, and the university partners with cities, businesses and nonprofits for classes, research and projects. The school’s commitment to innovation extends to the campus, which is equipped with world-class laboratories, technology in every classroom and which is the most solar-powered campus in the nation. ASU has also been recognized for its robust and original distance education program. The university offers more MOOCs for credit than any other school in the nation, and over 16% of its student body is enrolled online. ASU Online can claim several firsts: the first online, accredited engineering degree and the first online laboratory classes. The school also offers Global Freshman Academy, an unusual approach to online education, which allows students to choose whether or not to pay for credits after completing MOOCs. ASU’s institutional commitment to interdisciplinary collaboration, technology and accessibility have cemented its reputation as a top innovative school.
4. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is a private research university located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. MIT is one of nation’s most prestigious schools, and is ranked #1 in Worldwide Schools by U.S. News and World Report, and placed in the top ten in 12 other categories. The school was established in 1861, and has, from its start, been dedicated to innovation in research and education. Unlike the majority of American schools, MIT was built based on the European polytechnic model, and stressed laboratory practice in applied science and engineering. Research and invention are central to the culture of MIT. It is the number one recipient of industry financing for research and among institutions without medical schools. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (ranked #2) were behind some of the most important innovations of the past century, including the development of digital computers, the advent of the World Wide Web and the completion of the Human Genome Project. Beyond academic research, MIT students and alumni have the resources, support and skills to turn their big ideas into big business. Alumni include the founders of Dropbox and Khan Academy, and MIT estimates that its graduates have started 30,200 active companies, generating $1.9 trillion in annual revenues. MIT assists student entrepreneurs through extensive supports: startup competitions, mentoring programs, grants, courses, incubators, seed money, legal expertise and more. MIT also innovates in academic delivery. The school is located just outside of Boston, close to both Harvard and Wellesley, and MIT students can cross-register at both. The school also maintains a research partnership with Cambridge University. The institute has made virtually all course materials, some 2,400 classes in all, available to the public over the web through MIT OpenCouresWare. Through such innovative measures, this exclusive and technological school has proven itself to also be highly accessible and entrepreneurial.
5. Imperial College, London
Imperial College, London is a public research university located in London, England. The school was founded by Prince Albert in 1907 as part of the University of London, and became an independent institute in 2007. Today, Imperial focuses on four specific disciplines: science, engineering, medicine and business. Imperial is a prestigious and research-heavy institution. The school was ranked 8th in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, and is the second most innovative university in Europe according to Reuter’s. Researchers at Imperial have been responsible for major historical scientific milestones, including the discovery of penicillin and the development of holography and fiber optics. More recent research has investigated the nanoparticles that drive photosynthesis and made possible advances in robotic surgery. The school boasts scientific resources such as the world’s largest brain bank and a DNA Synthesis and Construction Foundry. Imperial excels in turning out groundbreaking discoveries and turning them into profitable ventures. The school supports the commercialization of its students’ and faculty’s inventions and discoveries through Imperial Innovations, the school’s technology commercialization company. Imperial Innovations has helped to launch a great number of spin-out companies based on academic research conducted at Imperial. The school provides a massive office and laboratory space, the I-Hub, where entrepreneurs and startups can commercialize new research. The university also administers collaborations between researchers and corporations through Imperial Business Partners, and places academic researchers with companies as consultants through Imperial Consultants. As a result of these innovative forays into the world of business, the many discoveries made at Imperial can be not only monetized, but thoroughly developed and widely applied.
6. The University of Cambridge
The University of Cambridge is a collegiate public research university in Cambridge, England. Established in 1209, it is the third-oldest surviving university in the world. Few institutions can boast as many superlatives as Cambridge; it has the largest university endowment in Europe, the world’s oldest publishing house, and the greatest number of Nobel laureate alumni. Reuter’s ranks Cambridge 3rd in its listing of Most Innovative European Schools, while the Times Higher Education ranks it 4th in the world. The school’s reputation for innovation is built on its commitment to research and its forward-thinking approach to supporting real-world applications for scientific and technological discoveries. Cambridge has extensive institutional resources to dedicate to research, such as some of the largest university libraries in Europe, along with massive research grants. Recent innovations include advances in engineering antibodies and understanding the genetic underpinnings of breast cancer. The school takes a progressive approach to disseminating its discoveries, releasing them freely through Cambridge Open Access. The school has also embraced business as a means of spreading and developing its discoveries. The school’s technology transfer company, Cambridge Enterprise, provides innovators with consultancy and equity, and the Entrepreneurship Centre at Cambridge Judge Business School provides training, mentoring and professional development to help Cambridge scientists and researchers launch innovation-driven business ventures.
7. École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne
Founded in 1853, the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) is a research university located in Lausanne, Switzerland. Its name translates to ‘Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne’, and the school specializes in natural sciences and engineering. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich is a sister institution to the EPFL; together, they form the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology Domain. EPFL is widely regarded as one of the world’s most prestigious institutions; the QS World University Rankings ranks EPFL 12th in the world. EPFL is on the cutting edge of scientific inquiry, operating a nuclear reactor, fusion reactor, supercomputer and biohazard facilities. The campus is home to over 350 laboratories and research groups, along with the EPFL Innovation Park, which hosts labs and offices for researchers from over 150 startups and established companies, such as Nestle, Logitech, Credit Suisse and Siemens. The campus itself is innovative in its forward-thinking sustainability features, such as an electronic bicycle-sharing system and hydroelectric power sourcing. EPFL was the first to win the International Sustainable Campus Excellence Award granted by the International Sustainable Campus Network.
8. The University of Oxford
The University of Oxford is entirely singular; it is almost one thousand years old, yet remains on the cutting edge of research and academics. The school is based in Oxford, England, and was founded as far back as 1096, making it the world’s second-oldest surviving university. Oxford is one of the most renowned institutions in existence; the Times Higher Education World University Rankings and Forbes World University Rankings both place the school first in the world. The university’s illustrious graduates include 50 Nobel laureates and 27 UK Prime Ministers, along with a wide range of leaders and influential figures, from John Locke and Oscar Wilde to Steven Hawking and Bill Clinton. Oxford is especially recognized for its strengths in the sciences. The school is comprised of 44 colleges, and boasts the largest library system in the UK, with over 100 distinct libraries. Reuter’s recognizes Oxford as 11th in Europe’s Most Innovative Universities, a placement earned through well-funded research, extensive engagement efforts and a commitment to translating discoveries into ventures. Oxford has integrated technology like smartboards, visualization software and tablets into its classrooms, and offers online education. The school recently launched its first free MOOC, an economics class addressing the roots of poverty, in partnership with the U.S.-based company, edX. The university also recently created Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, an interdisciplinary program to encourage collaboration between the humanities and sciences. Oxford excels in research, having made major contributions to the development of an Ebola vaccine, driverless cars and flood prevention strategies. Such discoveries are actively supported, commercialized and disseminated by the school. Oxford’s Public Engagement with Research program shares discoveries with the public, while the Oxford University Innovation, the school’s technology transfer arm, helps turn them into business ventures through funding, consulting and a dedicated business incubator.
9. Technical University of Munich
The Technical University of Munich (TUM) is a research university with campuses in Munich, Garching and Freising-Weihenstephan, Germany. The school dates back to 1868, when it was founded by King Ludwig II. The school has continued to evolve throughout its history, keeping pace with advances in science, mathematics and technology through academic development. TUM’s alumni include 13 Nobel laureates and 18 Leibniz Prize winners. Such modern-day staples as the diesel engine and the refrigerator were created at TUM. Today, researchers make major contributions in such advanced niche fields as nanosystems, photonics and integrated protein science. The school also leads in collaboration. In 1995, for instance, TUM instituted a school-wide competency requirement in the field of informatics and established several interdisciplinary institutes to encourage collaboration between departments. Since 2006, TUM has made great strides in commercializing its abundant discoveries. More than 800 start-ups have been launched by TUM students and staff, supported by the school’s technology transfer branch, patent and licensing support, and industry liaison services. According to the 2017 Start-up Radar, TUM provides optimum support to start-ups, and ranks first among German universities. TUM calls itself “The Entrepreneurial University” and with its proven track record in innovation, it is easy to see why.
10. University of Michigan System
The University of Michigan (UM) is a public research university based in based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Together with its regional campuses in the cities of Flint and Detroit, it comprises the University of Michigan System. The university dates back to 1817, and actually predates the founding of the state by 20 years. With one of the nation’s largest collegiate research budgets, UM is classified as a doctoral university with “very high research activity” by the Carnegie Foundation, and is widely considered to be a “Public Ivy”. A number of scientific advancements have been made at UM, notably in the fields of psychology, medicine and computing. U.S. News and World Report ranks UM 9th in Most Innovative Schools, and recognizes its technical strength with high rankings in departments such as biomedical engineering, quantitative analysis, and aerospace. Educational innovations in the University of Michigan System include close collaboration between undergraduate and graduate students, and advanced online classes, which the university began offering as early as 2000. A highly original program, Innovate Blue, serves as UM’s hub of entrepreneurship and innovation. Innovate Blue includes 15 innovation centers, such as technology transfer programs, funding, clubs and workspace for student innovators. By uniting innovative programming in one dedicated hub, UM brings together students from the humanities, social sciences and STEM subjects to collaborate and exchange ideas. This novel approach to encouraging growth and cooperation earns UM a place in the nation’s most innovative schools.
11. Georgia Institute of Technology
The Georgia Institute of Technology (“Georgia Tech”) is a public research university based in Atlanta, Georgia. The school was established in 1885 as a mechanical engineering school, and is now comprised of six colleges, containing 31 departments, with an emphasis on science and technology. With its selective admissions and high research activity, the school enjoys an outstanding reputation. U.S. News and World Report 7th in Most Innovative Schools. Business Insider ranks Georgia Tech as the single “smartest” public college in the nation based on standardized test scores, and Tech Co names it the nation’s number one public university for “the best-equipped graduates to make an impact in the world of technology”. Institutional innovations at Georgia Tech include the nation’s first online master’s program in computer science, a highly-developed MOOC-based distance education platform, and a Women In Engineering program which has helped the school lead the nation in producing female engineers. The school excels in such technical areas as nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and biomedical engineering. Research at Georgia Tech is robust, well-funded and interdisciplinary. The school provides extensive services to help innovators bring their discoveries and inventions to market; the Milken Institute ranks Georgia Tech fourth for startup companies, eighth in patents, and eleventh in technology transfer. Institutional supports for innovators include the Advanced Technology Development Center, Georgia Tech Research Corporation and VentureLab, all of which assist in development, licensing, organization and marketing of new discoveries and inventions. With strengths in both technical academics and entrepreneurial programs, Georgia Tech is a leader in innovation among American public institutions of higher learning.
12. Delft Institute of Technology
Located in the city of Dutch city of Delft, the Delft Institute of Technology is the oldest and largest public technological university in the Netherlands. The school was founded by King William II back in 1842 in order to educate civil engineers. Today, Delft is one of the world’s top-ranking institutions for the study of engineering and technology, and serves a student body of over 20,000. Reuter’s ranks Delft 8th in Europe’s Most Innovative Universities, recognizing its high number of patents filed and oft-cited research. The school has made major contributions to scientific and engineering advancements, including flood control, nanotube transistors and superfast solar powered cars. Delft students and faculty have also made discoveries in such futuristic fields as quantum data teleportation and humanoid robots. Delft is unusual for a technical school in its involvement with art and architecture; the institute has a highly-regarded architecture department and has sponsored research using scientific tools to study historical works of art. Institutionally, Delft is committed to academic innovation and accessibility. The school makes the majority of its world-class lectures available to the public at no cost through MOOCs. Delft has also organized a number of interdisciplinary centers to address specific issues, such as wind energy and climate change, through cross-departmental research. Student and faculty innovators can turn to YES!Delft, the school’s high-tech entrepreneurs center, for legal, financial and developmental support. Since its founding in 2005, YES!Delft has helped to launch some 160 innovative, tech-based startups.
13. University of Massachusetts Amherst
Based in the small town of Amherst, Massachusetts, the University of Massachusetts Amherst (“UMass Amherst”) is a public research university. It is the flagship school of the University of Massachusetts System and, with over 29,000 students, is the largest public university in the state. UMass has earned an outstanding academic reputation, and is rated the number one public university in New England by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. The Carnegie Foundation has designated UMass Amherst a “research university with highest research activity”, and Reuter’s rates it 52nd in the world for innovation. Researchers at UMass Amherst have contributed to the construction of one of the world’s largest single-aperture telescopes, created a non-flammable synthetic polymer and developed a molecular sensor for detecting and identifying proteins. UMass Amherst is innovative in its student life and educational structure as well. The campus, for instance, is home to one of the nation’s first university permaculture initiatives and one of the first university carbon-neutrality action plans. Academically, UMass is a leader in providing flexibility through innovation. The school was one of the first in the nation to venture into distance education and currently hosts two online learning programs: the School of Continuing and Professional Education and University Without Walls. The former is focused on specific skill training, designed to address the needs of professionals, while the latter delivers full, online degree-granting programs. The University Without Walls offers degrees in a uniquely interdisciplinary, highly flexible format. Under the guidance of an advisor, students of the University Without Walls build their own degree and curriculum through preexisting credits and selection among online graduate courses.
14. University of Erlangen-Nuremberg
The University of Erlangen-Nuremberg is a public research university with locations in two cities, Erlangen and Nuremberg, in Bavaria, Germany. The school is often referred to as Friedrich-Alexander University (FAU) in recognition of the school’s founder and its main historical benefactor. With over 40,000 students, FAU is one of Germany’s largest universities. It is one of the best-funded universities in Germany, with €180 million (or $204,878,700) in third-party funding, and a large portion of its massive endowments are directed towards research in engineering, medicine and science. FAU research is the most frequently cited of any German institution, and the school was ranked 6th in Europe’s Most Innovative Schools by Reuters.
Students and faculty at FAU have developed antibacterial bio-materials for medical applications and collaborated with two other German universities to create the world’s smallest engine. In addition to funding, the school supports researchers by providing transfer of knowledge and technology. At a time when “interdisciplinary” is the buzzword in research, FAU not only lives up to the claim but leads the pack in collaboration between academic departments and with outside industries. The school has teamed up with Proctor and Gamble, for instance, to develop a line of biodegradable disposable diapers. The school participates in a number of prominent collaborative research networks, such as the Bavarian Center for Applied Energy Research. In a high-profile exercise in team building and idea exchange, the school will be launching “Science Sets Sail”, a month-long excursion and lecture tour conducted aboard a sailboat manned by nine teams of FAU researchers and international scientists. As a leader in influential research and collaboration, FAU truly lives up to its motto, “Advancing through Networks”.
15. Duke University
Founded in 1838, Duke University is a prestigious private research university located in Durham, North Carolina. With endowments topping $11.4 billion, Duke is the seventh-wealthiest private university in America, and the tenth most selective. A number of scientific breakthroughs have been made by Duke researchers, including the first 3D ultrasound system and the first engineered blood vessels and stents. Student and faculty inventors and originators can count on the school’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative to support them in bringing their discoveries to market and disseminating their ideas to the public. Unlike some schools’ innovation support hubs, which may focus entirely on commercialization, Duke’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative prioritizes “the translation of knowledge in the service of society”, ensuring maximum public benefit from discoveries made at the university. The program provides advanced training in entrepreneurship, capital, feasibility analyses, incubation space and competitions. With many schools looking to distinguish themselves as launch pads for big ideas, Duke stands out for its elite student body, vast resources and commitment to public service through innovation. In addition to groundbreaking research, Duke is committed to innovating in its capacity as an educational institution. In 2014, for instance, the school partnered with Wuhan University in China to create Duke Kunshan University, offering liberal arts education which integrates Chinese academic traditions. Duke has also launched a number of innovative interdisciplinary endeavors, such as the Global Health Research Center, which uses political, social and medical perspectives to help solve complex health problems worldwide. Duke deserves a place in the World’s Most Innovative Universities for its unique commitment to accessibility and public service through innovation.