A new Rhodes Scholarship? Stanford unveils an elite graduate program.

With the backing of several donors, including a Nike co-founder who donated $400 million, Stanford has announced a new graduate-level scholarship program to rival the Rhodes Scholarship. 

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
Students walk on campus at Stanford University Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016, in Stanford, Calif. Stanford recently received a large donation to establish the world's large scholarship fund.

Stanford University has announced the largest graduate-level scholarship program in the world, kickstarted by one of the largest gifts in university history.

With the help of a $400 million pledge from Nike co-founder and philanthropist Philip H. Knight, Stanford has unveiled the Knight-Hennessy Scholar Program. The program will offer full scholarships to Stanford for graduate students who show promise. It will be run by current Stanford President John L. Hennessy.

The program aims to find solutions for some of the world’s most pressing challenges, including “the environment, health, education and human rights,” according to the news release. Rather than looking at the issues as isolated silos, the program will also focus on multidisciplinary approaches heavy on collaboration.

“We think these complex problems we face around the world require talent from many different disciplines, so we’re going to not only encourage students to get that kind of background, but also to learn how to collaborate and build collaborative skills,” Mr. Hennessy told The Christian Science Monitor in an interview Wednesday.

Stanford, Hennessy, and several other donors are willing to bet hundreds of millions that the collaborative focus will bring about real change.

The $750-million endowment will allow the Knight-Hennessy Scholars Program to recruit 100 students a year from a pool of candidates nominated by their universities. The geography of the selection process will be global, with one-third of the scholars from North America and the rest coming from around the world, according to Bay Area News.

The goal of the fund is to both establish a program that helps educate students on contemporary global issues and how to face them, but also to give the students enough freedom to find their own paths, Hennessy explained to the Monitor. One key way the program aims to help free students: no debt, student or otherwise.

“A key goal for us is that the students graduate with zero dollars of debt from their graduate education,” Hennessy told the Monitor. “We are giving them a stipend to cover housing costs as well as full tuition coverage. If we are going to get students from Africa or India or places like that, they simply can’t deal with additional financial burdens."

The Knight-Hennessy fund may be new, but the idea behind a graduate scholarship fund for the academic elite is not.

The Rhodes Scholarship is one of the most esteemed programs on the planet and offers international students the chance to pursue postgraduate studies at the University of Oxford. The program takes 89 scholars each year and has had alumni go on to many prominent positions, from president of the United State (Bill Clinton) to Prime Minister of Australia (Tony Abbott).

The Stanford scholarship is partially based on this and other models, but the new program will differ in its size and global outlook. Whether these differences will make it more or less susceptible to challenges the other funds have faced is uncertain.

In an article published in The Washington Post, Elliot Gerson, then American secretary of the Rhodes Trust and vice president of the Aspen Institute, highlighted the growing concern that a large number of Rhodes Scholars turn to Wall Street and business careers after graduating rather than entering public service. “Recently, more than twice as many went into business in just one year than did in the entire 1970s,” Mr. Gerson wrote in 2009.

When asked if the Knight-Hennessy program took steps to ensure graduates continue to face global challenges in business and outside, Hennessy replied: “Certainly we’re hoping not all the students go into one career path, that they will go to government and nonprofit and the academic world and some to business as well. I would observe that if we had some really great, terrific, high integrity leaders on Wall Street it wouldn't hurt us.”

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