No one knows yet whether Minerva Schools can create a for-profit elite university on par with Ivy League schools, all while costing students half or less than what those schools charge and conducting all its classes online. But it may be safe to say that the world has only begun to see the types of disruptive business models that eventually could bring quality higher education to millions of people who otherwise would be left out.
The result of that would be nothing short of spectacular, especially for disadvantaged populations, even if it challenges the elite structure of legacy institutions.
Minerva, whose plans were featured in a Deseret News story last week, has identified an untapped market. Its founder, former Snapfish CEO Ben Nelson, notes that elite universities in the United States are maxed out due to enrollment caps and limited facilities. Only about 7 to 15 percent of the students who apply are granted admission, and yet hundreds of thousands more would qualify but are now faced with more limited options.
He told The Atlantic he thinks as many as 400,000 students worldwide might fit the profile of potential students of this new venture.
Under the Minerva model, students would spend their first year living in rented student housing in San Francisco. The online classes would not be lectures in the typical sense. Students would be expected to study materials from other sources on their own, then meet online to participate in real-time discussions. The emphasis is to be on mastering critical thinking skills.
In subsequent years, students are to choose majors and academic areas of concentration, working with advisers to devise a unique capstone project. After the first year, students will live in various cities in the world to broaden their horizons and contacts.
The school will not have to deal with huge costs for facilities. It will not have athletic teams. Its instructors will not be tenured, although they will be paid competitive salaries and will come from the ranks of highly respected instructors at other institutions. The result, Nelson says, will be the opportunity for an elite education at a cost roughly half as much as what an Ivy League school would charge.
Minerva is not the only current model for bypassing traditional universities. Several courses are offered at low cost online under a system known loosely as MOOC, for massively open online courses. While these appeal to students who want to learn without the heavy expenses involved with traditional education, they are not accredited courses. Minerva is hoping to gain accreditation through the Keck Graduate Institution, with which it has a partnership.
There are plenty of critics. They note with skepticism that it will be hard, if not impossible, to replicate the cachet that follows a degree from Yale or Harvard. They cite the poor reputation for-profit universities have garnered in the past. They argue that Minerva’s teaching methods are unproven.
All of these may be valid. Our point is not to promote Nelson’s idea as the next step forward in academics. It is to note that the Information Age holds enormous promise for more affordable learning opportunities worldwide. As learning tends to translate into prosperity and freedom, this democratization of education is a promising trend.
Nelson notes that no new top-tiered university has been founded in the United States in the past century, and he wonders if any other competitive sector of the economy can say the same.
It is worth noting that Nelson has assembled an impressive advisory board that includes former Harvard president and treasury secretary Larry Summers and former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerry, among others.
Even if Minerva, which hopes to begin classes next fall, fails, it may succeed in identifying a large underserved worldwide market yearning for knowledge and skills. Once that is clear, competitors will be hard at work finding models that can serve them effectively. Then there will be no limits.