Which Universities Excel at Shaping the Next Generation of Social Innovators?

A guide for aspiring changemakers to universities committed to developing their capacity for social impact.

“Universities remain important to shaping the future and building a more just world. But they must adapt to provide social impact education, and seek to apply new modalities of teaching and learning to engage diverse learners across disciplines and experiences.” -Marta Urquilla is deputy director at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University, and a former senior policy adviser at the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation

Our future will be defined by how well we understand the root causes of systemic inequalities and empower those affected to enact change.

It is a critical function of universities to graduate students prepared to address today’s challenges. The world needs more problem solvers starting with better support structures to empower young people with the awareness and skills to make a positive difference.

This blog post aims to guide aspiring changemakers to universities committed to developing their capacity for social impact.

It is a framework of critical questions that highlight the three foundational markers of such universities: a whole-community commitment to service engagement, a commitment to disciplinary rigor combined with cross-disciplinary problem understanding, and dedicated spaces and programs for community collaboration. Below we highlight examples of these elements on a few university campuses.

As you’re evaluating universities’ social impact offerings, we encourage you to ask these questions.

A deep, community-wide commitment to local service

Can you describe specific programs and support structures the university has in place to encourage and facilitate student engagement with local social issues? 

A university’s culture of service is reflected in how its community—students, faculty, staff, and alumni—applies its resources to address social needs for mutual benefit.

Tulane University is a good example of this. Following Hurricane Katrina, it has made service-learning fundamental to its curriculum, requiring undergraduates to choose from a range of unique service-learning classes that align with their field of study. 

Through its Center for Public Service, Tulane University has established relationships in the New Orleans community. This center not only familiarizes incoming students with the area’s social challenges but allows them to engage in interdisciplinary efforts to find solutions.

Tulane’s undergraduate service requirement, coupled with its entrenched relationships in the community, is a powerful leadership development environment benefiting both the community and aspiring social innovators through shared experience.

These integrated service-learning programs are not just extracurricular; they are woven into the university culture and student development. At Tulane, as well as University of San Diego, Brown, Georgetown, Cornell, and UNC Chapel Hill, service-learning is an intentional instructional strategy for developing socially conscious leaders. These programs offer practical experience in problem understanding, nurturing empathy, and strengthening the skills and confidence of any aspiring changemaker.

Disciplinary excellence applied through an interdisciplinary approach

Does the university uphold strict standards within individual disciplines while fostering an environment that encourages cross-disciplinary problem understanding and effective collaboration across diverse fields? How?

This balance, between disciplinary rigor and interdisciplinary problem understanding, is crucial for preparing students to deal with multifaceted social issues. Domain experts are critical to sustainable social innovation, but the world’s problems are never limited to just one discipline.

Universities can achieve this balance in a variety of ways. These include offering an open curriculum that allows students to chart their own unique disciplinary paths or structured interdisciplinary studies that combine majors, minors, and graduate programs from traditionally separate tracks (a good example from the University of Miami). Additionally, cross-disciplinary residential communities, laboratory projects, faculty and alumni collaboration, interdisciplinary advisory services, and internships all help students learn the ins-and-outs of their discipline while exposing them to cross-disciplinary problem understanding and collaborative problem solving. 

For example, programs like Duke University’s DukeEngage enable students and faculty from different disciplines to engage with communities. These integrated teams tackle critical social issues both locally and globally through programs including immersive summer experiences which improve students’ skills while working on cross-disciplinary challenges.  

On campus, Duke adheres to a rigorous disciplinary curriculum in key fields like technology, business, and engineering, each a crucial aspect of addressing systemic inequalities. The university enhances the disciplinary experience by encouraging real-world skill application, network building, and problem understanding through shared learning opportunities, facilitated both off-campus and on-campus by the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Hub.

This approach is not unique to Duke; there are similar programs at University of Southern California, Middlebury, and University of Maryland, to name a few. 

In this manner, the university honors the significant time and dedication required to master a specific discipline, while leveraging the practical aspects of collaborative work to develop social impact awareness and skills. This ensures students are not only knowledgeable but also skilled in applying their expertise in diverse, team-based environments.

Spaces and resources for social innovation

Could you outline the resources and spaces your university offers that aid students in enhancing social awareness and understanding complex issues? Specifically, how do these facilities support the development and execution of social innovation projects? 

For universities developing social innovators, the availability of dedicated spaces and resources to tackle social issues is a hallmark of their commitment.

The university’s innovation or public service center serves as a crucial hub where students and faculty from across the campus come together to collaborate on impactful projects. It’s a civic engagement center of gravity, offering resources like mentorship, programming, co-curricular classes, and access to financial support. These centers act as a bridge, connecting the university community with external entities and resources like local government, nonprofits, businesses, and local organizations. It’s where the internal university community meets the external world, creating a dynamic environment for shared learning and problem-solving.

Equipped with an array of tools and resources, these innovation hubs play a key role in facilitating the cross-pollination of academic knowledge and experiential learning. They nurture emerging social impact leaders who are committed to addressing real-world challenges.

Innovation hubs at universities like Brown, UNC Chapel Hill, and Vanderbilt, each with their unique approach, demonstrate how universities are creating spaces beyond classrooms and labs to bring people together. These hubs are vibrant spaces where the elements of innovation thrive, fostering connections across disciplines and deep integration with the community, bringing transformative ideas and collaborative efforts to life.


In choosing a university that molds social impact leaders, it’s crucial to look beyond rankings and consider the institution’s ethos, support structures, and interdisciplinary collaboration opportunities. The pursuit of social innovation requires more than academic excellence—it demands a holistic approach that recognizes the power of service, empathy, and cross-disciplinary engagement.

These elements directly contribute to developing leaders who are not only academically adept but also empathetically engaged and collaboratively skilled, essential qualities for addressing the complex social challenges of our time.

As you evaluate universities, ask pointed questions to discern each institution’s unique approach to fostering social innovators. These inquiries will help you discover the university’s dedication to societal change, and its ability to nurture the next generation of leaders who will confront the social challenges of our time.

We’ve highlighted a few university programs that showcase our commitment to nurturing future leaders in social impact. We’re eager to hear your thoughts on other innovative programs we may have missed! Which ones would you add? Let us know!

The world is ripe for change, and aspiring social innovators are searching for a place to kindle their passion for impact. Universities that prioritize community engagement, disciplinary excellence, and collaborative innovation spaces will stand out as fertile grounds for these students to grow, learn, and eventually lead.

For further research see:

AshokaU Changemaker Campuses

USNews Service-Learning Programs

– Ryan & Thomas Growney SG’24

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