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Move Over Harvard? Online University To Challenge Elite Schools

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.

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  • BillH

    The students’ first post-graduation effort will be hunting down grant money and fellowships? So he’s turning out faculty-to-be for institutions he’s helping to drive out of existence?

  • Walter Sobchak

    Harvard has not been the source of an education better than that available at most state universities for many years. The real purpose of Harvard is to allow children of the elite to meet and mate. Online dating will not be as good. The kids need to get together in meat space and sniff each others pheromones.

  • Luke Lea

    Tuition will be offered at “half of what it is for top colleges?

    Make that one tenth. Who cares if 3000 students are taking the same class?

  • Luke Lea

    And why selective admission on the basis of merit? How about credit for anybody who can pass the final exam?

  • Didymus

    Apart from the still overpriced tuition, how does this school expect students to afford to live in a different city/country and become fluent in two other languages? Like those prestigious internships in third world countries that our elite students are so fond of, these requirements will be incredibly difficult for students to achieve unless they already have a significant source of income.

  • EvilBuzzard

    A lot of brick and mortar schools are at least offering MS degrees. Universities will still demand more skin in the game and before they really let you “join the club” and earn a doctorate this way. This is probably right and proper.

  • Joe Johnson

    The education bubble will soon burst. The Left will be apoplectic. No more tenure via cocktail parties.

    This will be fun to watch.

  • walter grumpius

    As much (or maybe more than) intellectual refinement, a major purpose of an elite, meatspace, brick-and-mortar university, which (at least to date) cannot be replicated by an online experience, is the opportunity to network with, bond with, and interact at a deep intellectual level with your peers: which Las Vegas odds say will stand you in far greater stead in your future trajectory than any transitory knowledge you may have picked up at uni, leaving aside of course the hard sciences.

    Ask me how I know.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    What is needed is education like fast food from the drive thru. The Minerva model isn’t going to cut the mustard, it contains too many carry over’s from the bricks and mortar, like 4 years and semesters, and unnecessary and stupid three language requirements. This is just the kind of garbage business model you would expect from Larry Summers, who has never run a business, and whose economics gave us the $800 Billion Stimulus program that didn’t stimulate. Minerva will be a massive failure as it doesn’t recognize why higher education is failing, or how to leverage the advantages of delivering education on line. Half the price of top colleges is still outrageous.

  • Kate

    I take instruction to teach online courses at my college. The national failure/dropout rate for online courses is about 45%. I find that stunning. The colleges like the online courses because they are cash cows, bringing in far more money than they cost to deliver. Yet, you really couldn’t teach a class of 3000 students, unless you offered no professorial interaction and no writing. Maybe that is the kind of course some of you guys would prefer?

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Kate: you are right that many colleges and other for profit institutions that are using online instruction aren’t always using it very scrupulously or intelligently. The process of developing ways to use new technologies effectively to deliver better educational outcomes more inexpensively than traditional schools is not going to be finished overnight. And there are profiteers and unscrupulous people in both the for profit and the non profit sectors. Yet the system we have now isn’t doing enough to educate enough people at prices they can afford. Train wrecks this big weren’t made in a day and can’t be sorted out in ten minutes. Life in academia is going to be complicated and even conflictual for a while as we grope toward some new ways of doing things. In the meantime: Caveat Emptor.

  • Eurydice

    Well, as the article states, this is an interesting combination of ambition and delusion, but the process has to start somewhere. I’m curious to see how this project handles the fact that on-line learning is psychologically a very different thing from the traditional methods.

    Also, as another poster has pointed out, the idea of moving to a different country/city every semester sounds glamorous, but I know from experience that it’s kind of all-consuming. The cost, the logistics, the paperwork (not just visas, but residency permits, currency exchange, etc.). buying household goods, selling those household goods, packing, unpacking, figuring out the lay of the land, and all in a different language. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for school. The only reasonable way this could be accomplished to to establish physical campuses in certain popular locations so that students could move in and out efficiently. And then you’re back to having a physical university. Maybe it’s cheaper to teach languages on-line.

  • Bruno Behrend

    “Nelson says, “if you’re not trilingual by the end of your four years, you won’t graduate.”

    This is the kind of tertiary bauble that exposes the unworkable nature of most “education reform projects.”

    As a promoter of the idea that knowledge is good for its own sake, I support the aspiration that people are “trilingual.” But why make it an unobtainable prerequisite? All you are doing is narrowing the number of people who can succeed, and thus increasing the potential for failure of the entire project.

    Further, people ought to be “triligual” before the 5th grade, when the mind is far more apt to pick up language. It’s simply cheaper to and faster to learn language early, so why waste resources on HS and undergrad language instruction? (almost all of which is elective garbage that doesn’t really teach the language)

    The best way to truly break the education paradigm is to challenge the notion of “grades” and “age appropriate” content, in favor of a “just-in-time” content delivery system that is a hybrid of brick-and-mortar and digital delivery.

    Google “blended learning” and “Carpe Diem Charter School” to see how this might look. Obviously, for ANY of this to work, we have to destroy the system of funding essentially worthless entities called “school districts” and start funding the child directly.

    Add a modicum of parental guidance and education savings accounts, and America will be blowing past even the best ‘top-down’ education nations like Finland.

  • http://Firefox Ernie Mendoza

    Established Universities and Colleges would certainly be an institution of the past. Let the competition begin. Minerva you’re it, in my book.

  • padraeg

    I’m gonna try! Seems advantageous to have some savings to draw from, if not from parents… lol

  • sam meln

    College tuition varies , for example which tuition fee will use use as the standard?
    Who would give 25 million to this project, by it’s very nature is doomed to failure because no one will pay or sign up for it, or will there be students grants? Grants or free are the only way they will get anyone to sign up, and will the degrees be recognized by our graduate schools?

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