Ben Nelson wants to create an elite bachelor's degree like the kind you get at schools like Harvard or Stanford, but which is less costly and more widely available. Nelson has a brand, a plan, and he has a $25 million bankroll from Benchmark Capital, whose venture capitalists believe he can do it.
Nelson’s new conception for higher education, which involves the use of online technology, raises some important questions. Can Minerva Schools really come through with a prestigious college degree using technology often associated with down-scale diploma mills? Or, as the Wall Street Journal asked in an Aug. 9 story, “Can the Minerva Project do to Ivy League universities what Amazon did to Borders?” Could a less-costly model for quality higher education put other schools out of business?
A new model
Nelson, former CEO of the online photo-sharing company Snapfish, started gestating the Minerva Project in 2010. In fall of 2014, a small founding class of select students will start classes through Minerva Schools; the university’s first full class will matriculate one year later.
Students at Minerva Schools will live together in dormitory-like housing. They will be in San Francisco for their first year, and in a different international city for each succeeding year. There won’t be a brick-and-mortar campus at all. Great cities of the world, and all they have to offer, will stand in for ivy-covered halls and grassy quads. “Global cultural immersion” is the goal, including the chance to learn foreign languages.
Instruction will happen online through the project’s own software platform, which lets professors at remote locations teach seminar-style classes limited to clusters of 19 or fewer students. The courses happen in real time, with all participants able to see and hear each other across the Internet. The format allows vigorous discussions that provoke thought and challenge assumptions.
Case studies are a key feature of the classes and connect course work to real-world situations. Students do significant study outside of class. That can include the use of open-source online materials to fill any learning gaps. There are no lectures during the classes; students who want or need them can find course lectures at Kahn Academy (kahnacademy.org) or through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).
“Universities say they teach you critical thinking, analysis and synthesis, but if you ask how they do that, they don’t know,” Nelson said. “There’s nothing they can point to.”
Minerva Schools’ founding dean, Stephen Kosslyn, was formerly Harvard’s dean of social sciences, then Stanford’s director of the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences, which is the world’s pre-eminent institution in the field. Kosslyn said that traditional universities teach literature, chemistry and other courses, but merely “hope that critical thinking is automatically absorbed.”
“[Minerva Schools] give students habits of mind, broken down so they are concrete, teachable and track-able,” Kosslyn said. “These foundational concepts will serve them in good stead for the rest of their lives. We give our students fishing poles, not fish, that they can use as the world changes.”
Though 21st-century technology links professors and students, they use a seminar format that hearkens back to Socrates’ ancient learning model.
“It’s all about questions,” Kosslyn said. “The students do reading in advance, watch videos, whatever. The professor asks questions, and by answering them, the students work through the issues, think about the material and get to know it. The more deeply you think about something, the more likely you are to remember it.”
Kosslyn said the first-year curriculum at Minerva Schools builds leadership and creativity and teaches students to read critically and present arguments in a compelling way. Students learn to think broadly about world problems.
“People want simple explanations,” Kosslyn said. “For most real-world problems, there’s a bunch of stuff going on. We want students to appreciate that.”
In the second year, students choose majors and areas of concentration. During the third year, each student works with an adviser to start an original capstone project, which begins with a course on innovation. Students then use what they have learned thus far to create something new as they complete major classes during the third and fourth years. That could be an online business, a novel, a new economic theory, a water purification system — something that captures the student’s interest and passion.
Cost, accessibility and accreditation
Annual tuition at the Minerva Schools is $10,000, less than one-third of Harvard’s tuition for 2012-13, which is $37,576. Adding in books and supplies, room and board, insurance and incidentals brings Minerva’s cost to about $29,000 per year. At Harvard, the annual total comes to $60,000 or more. Both schools offer various financial aid packages. Professors receive competitive pay at Minerva and are hired for skill in teaching, not research. There is no tenure. Minerva’s cost savings arise from forgoing such things as brick-and-mortar campuses, research programs, athletic programs and overhead for multiple layers of administration.
A Minerva School will aim to compete with the prestige of a Harvard education for less than half the cost. Some of the people connected with the project wield plenty of educational clout, including Kosslyn. Former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey, who is also a former president of New York’s The New School university, is chairman of the Minerva Institute for Research and Scholarship. Former Harvard University President Larry Summers chairs Minerva’s advisory board, which also includes Kerrey.
High intellectual standards alone qualify students for entrance to the Minerva Schools. The school's online format means there is no need for enrollment caps, at least in theory. During admissions decision-making, no consideration is given to nationality, athletic ability, race, ability to give money or the identity of an applicant's parents.
Minerva CEO Nelson believes there is an underserved global market for an elite American education. Because of enrollment caps, the nation's Ivy League colleges admit only 7 to 15 percent of students who apply. Nelson believes there are more U.S. students who merit admission to an elite school but end up at state schools. Around the globe, there are huge numbers of potential students, he said.
“Our admission standards are stringent — even more stringent than a typical Ivy League university,” Nelson said. “Our goal is to draw talent, and we don’t care where it comes from.”
Last July, the Minerva Project announced a partnership with Keck Graduate Institution, a part of California’s Claremont University Consortium. The agreement gives Minerva a pathway to earn accreditation, Nelson said.
Disruption? Dysfunction? Delight?
Nelson said that he’s not trying to disrupt or topple the current model for higher education with his big idea. He does intend to create a new model for other schools to follow, though. Or ignore at their peril.
“If we do what we are supposed to do as our mission, others will have no choice but to copy us, and that’s a good thing,” Nelson said. “We hope universities will look and decide to emulate. If they don’t, we will be disruptive. Because if we offer a superior education with higher quality and lower cost and others don’t react, then unfortunately, it will be disruptive.”
Nelson said he finds it incredible that no first-tier university has launched in the United States during the past 100 years.
“There is no other business sector that hasn’t had a top-of-the-line competitor launched in the last 100 years,” he said. “All sectors have had new entrants that have redefined them, except higher education.”
Chris Peterson, a researcher at MIT’s Center for Civic Media, is among those who have concerns about the Minerva model. Peterson said he believes that Minerva’s cost, though lower than costs at top-tier U.S. universities, will still be out of reach for many meritorious students, especially those from Third-World countries. And he questions the approach to learning.
“They are looking to take some very unproven educational methods, still very much in the experimental stage and roll them out to a whole bunch of the most vulnerable people in the world,” Peterson said. “They frame this as founding the next university. They know that elite prestige sells better than anything else in the education world.”
Kosslyn, Minerva Schools’ dean, sees the matter differently. He likes trying to improve upon an education model that many see as outdated, ineffective and too expensive.
“We are actually starting from scratch,” Kosslyn said. “We can try to do it right — come up with a 21st-century education that takes advantage of the science of learning and uses technology effectively. It’s incredibly fun to be doing this.”
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