Will America’s next great university be online? That’s the ambitious aim of the Minerva Project, an education startup/university that just received $25 million in seed funding and has already snared former Harvard President Larry Summers to chair its advisory board. Minerva’s founder, Ben Nelson, says that “by creating an educational experience that is built from online resources [Minerva] won’t be subject to the same scarcity of resources that besets institutions today.” Tuition will be offered at “half of what it is for top colleges.”Minerva envisions a meritocratic Eden: admission will be determined by intellectual ability, not by how well you can throw a football or whether your father can donate a new science building. It aims to attract top students from around the globe and match them with the best professors. The emphasis will be on a rigorous and broad liberal arts education. Like traditional universities, degrees will be completed over four years, consisting of two semesters and four classes per semester. Students will be encouraged to live in a different city or country each semester, and, while there will be no foreign language classes, Nelson says, “if you’re not trilingual by the end of your four years, you won’t graduate.”Minerva also wants to remain intimately involved with its students once they graduate:
“If we actually want to accelerate the life trajectory of these students,” the founder says, “our job can’t be over at the moment they graduate.” Upon graduation, rather than thinking of students as alumni whose job is to support them with donations, Nelson wants it to be the other way around.This doesn’t mean it will be sending students a check in the mail every month, but the school actually wants to help students thrive after graduation by finding them like-minded collaborators, hunting down grant money, and fellowships — actively, not passively.
We here at Via Meadia are not oracles. We have no idea if Minerva will supplant Harvard in a generation or if it will flop completely. But we do know our higher education system is inefficient and not providing students with the value its pricetag implies. Higher costs, massive debt, and poor job prospects are providing the impetus for change. Innovations such as Minerva are only going to become more prevalent as entrepreneurs begin to harness the power of existing technologies to drag universities into the 21st century.