The Minerva Project, which turned heads last April with its mega $25 million seed round, has grand ambitions for bringing a Harvard-level education to the Web. But there are two aspects of Ivy League schooling it’s trying to avoid: exorbitant tuition and traditional professor hiring practices.
“The entire thrust of what we’re trying to do is reimagine what a tier one research university would look like if it started in the 21st century,” said Ben Nelson, Minerva Project’s founder and CEO, who was formerly CEO of Snapfish.
Only students who meet a high academic standard will be admitted, he said, and, when the web-based school opens in 2015, his hope is that they’ll be taught by best-in-class professors delivering a rigorous, top-notch curriculum – at “well under half” the price of traditional Ivy League schools.
Former Sen. Bob Kerrey to lead new non-profit institute
Since announcing its funding, the company has stayed relatively quiet as its peers in online education, Coursera and Udacity especially, have grabbed headline after headline. But on Monday, Minerva shared a little more detail about how it plans to get its university of the future off the ground. The company is for-profit but announced a plan to create a non-profit Minerva Institute for Research and Scholarship to create new programs to finance students’ education and recruit top-level teaching talent. Led by former Senator and Governor Bob Kerrey (D-NB), who was also the former president of The New School, the Institute will emphasize Minerva’s commitment to a business model that doesn’t leave college graduates with a crushing debt load and that provides new opportunities for professors in a tough academic job market.
It’s an interesting move on Minerva’s part. The company didn’t need to create a separate organization to focus on student costs and professor recruitment issues. But Nelson said he wanted to ensure the for-profit part of the company wasn’t tempted to benefit financially from those aspects of the university. He also said he wants the Institute’s research to be shared with others.
Minerva will say ‘no’ to federal student aid
From the start, Nelson’s vision has been bold. But the institute further highlights just how big Nelson’s ambitions are. “We’re creating an institution that will outlive me,” he said. “I want to create structures that are in place 100 years from now.”
Nelson said Minerva will not participate in Title IV programs, which provide student financial aid from the federal government, because they create “perverse incentives” that lead to skyrocketing tuition rates and constricted admittance numbers. He also added that he expects the majority of Minerva students to be international so those programs would only make a difference for the smaller percentage of its American students. Given Minerva’s interest in educating any student from around the world who meets its high academic standards, the Institute’s role will be to figure out and create scholarship programs for students in need of financial aid, as well as secure favorable loan rates.
Attracting teaching talent with convenience, new opportunities
To succeed, Minerva needs to lure professors who would otherwise be Cambridge– or Palo Alto-bound – not an easy task for an upstart university founded by an entrepreneur with no formal experience in higher education. But Nelson said the new institute will look at ways to target teachers at transition points in their careers with opportunities that they wouldn’t be able to find at traditional brick-and-mortar schools.
For example, for newly-minted PhDs unable to score one of very few jobs in their fields, Minerva could offer the chance to bolster their resumes with a position that involves teaching high-performing students and leading research. At the other end of the academic life cycle, Minerva could attract recently retired faculty who want to work at their own convenience. Because the school isn’t bound by geography, teachers can work from anywhere, including with collaborators at other schools. Another selling point: Minerva won’t lay claim to professors’ research, so they can own all of their IP outright, Nelson said.
So far, Minerva has not only attracted big bucks from VCs, it’s won the backing of advisor Larry Summers, former Treasury Secretary and Harvard president, which could help the company bring in more academic all-stars. And, given the rising levels of student debt and questions about the value of a high-priced college education, Minerva could give college-bound students another interesting option to consider. Also, in an online education landscape that currently seems to favor skill-based instruction, it’s encouraging to see a new approach to providing a broader, liberal arts education online.
Minerva still has a long way to go before it delivers on its audacious mission – and with its focus on delivering a packaged degree program, it’s moving against the “unbundling” trend in education, in some ways. But, hopefully, regardless of how Harvard-like it becomes, it will give educators at all kinds of institutions some new ideas and approaches to technology-supported education in the 21st century.