September 25th, 2021


Can an Upstart College With no Frills and no Football Challenge the Elites?

Suzanne Fields

By Suzanne Fields

Published August 29, 2014

Thousands of moms and dads, following the script written into an autumn ritual of the middle class, are preparing to say farewell to the sons and daughters they've loved, nurtured and tried to civilize for two decades. They're sending the next generation off to college and saying goodbye to a considerable chunk of the family savings.

We've been told so many times that college is an investment to ensure a prosperous future, that nearly everybody believes it. But it's an investment with risks. The cost of a college degree runs as high as $60,000 a year at the elite schools — nearly a quarter of a million dollars by the end of the fourth year. The average college graduate carries a debt of $33,000, many with more than that and a few twice that. A growing number of critics say the university system is an anachronism in the Age of the Internet. There must be a better way. One of them might be digital.

Some of the most innovative ideas are known by the acronym MOOC, for Massive Open Online Courses, which invite participation and electronic exchange and conversation with professors armed with videos and access to online information. Many online schools are accredited; some are free, and several are run by professors from elite universities.

The newest model in the high-tech smorgasbord is called the Minerva Project, named for the Roman goddess of wisdom. Minerva is a new university global in approach, eliminating the costliest aspects of traditional college education, but it's not a MOOC because it will offer a city campus with small classes. Minerva cuts costs by having no tenure, no ivy clinging to huge old buildings, no football stadium or basketball field house, no dining hall, no library, no expensive and wasteful administrative bureaucracy, and perhaps most unusual — and controversial — no lectures.

Minerva revels in being elitist and aims to make a profit by teaching the best and the brightest through digital exchange, motivating students to learn without frills. The university takes no federal money and will rely on private funding. (It's already raised $25 million from investors.)

Ben Nelson, 38, is the ambitious founder of Minerva and the successful entrepreneur who created Snapfish, the online snapshot processor, which he sold to Hewlett Packard for $300 million in 2005. He says Minerva is designed to educate leaders who will run major institutions in the world. His first major faculty hire was Stephen M. Kosslyn, who taught and held administrative posts at Harvard and Stanford, identified by Atlantic magazine as the man who will train professors to teach the Minerva way.

"We don't necessarily know how to teach you to be a better orthodontist or a better tax accountant," Mr. Nelson tells the daily London Independent. "We innovate in teaching you how to think, how to be creative, how to communicate effectively — and how to lead." Too much time and money in the old system is spent on disseminating knowledge which is already freely available on the Internet. It can be elicited in dialogue with smart teachers and savvy kids.

The teaching at Minerva will be done in intensive, interactive seminars, many conducted online using Minerva's specialized video-conferencing system, with professors based in different cities. It's not free, but it's not as expensive as the Ivy League education to which Minerva expects to be eventually compared.

Minerva's first freshman class is made up of only 33 carefully selected students, and the founder expects up to 300 by next year, with tuition, room and board priced at $28,000. To attract talented, motivated students for its inaugural year in San Francisco, first-year freshmen get a $10,000 tuition scholarship for four years and free room and board in their first year. Minerva expects to eventually open campuses in London, Berlin, New York City, Buenos Aires, Mumbai (it used to be called Bombay) and Hong Kong.

Initial start-up costs are relatively inexpensive, and Minerva says it could show a profit of up to $280 million annually if it grows to classes the size of 2,500 students. Minerva has attracted big-name advisers, including Larry Summers, the former secretary of the Treasury and once the president of Harvard, and Bob Kerrey, the former Democratic senator from Nebraska and once the president of the New School in New York.

Curriculum at Minerva is crucial, and cornerstone courses teach ways of thinking with studying of the fundamentals. The great books will be taught with prominent scholars as guides in online seminars. Science labs will emphasize controlled experiments, and the humanities will emphasize classical rhetoric and persuasion.

This could sound like a big pie in the sky, but many parents, like those waving goodbye to their offspring this week, are desperate for something better than expensive and politically correct mediocrity. If it's the pie that satisfies, they want a piece of it.

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