mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Look Out Harvard: You've Got Some Competition


People may disagree on just how higher ed is going to change in the coming years and decades and about just what might replace it. But one thing is for certain: this change is assured.

Here’s another cut at the problem: Minerva, a new project of Silicon Valley CEO Ben Nelson, is a new university that aims to compete directly with the Ivy League. Unlike other startup universities that look poised to compete with the lower end of the higher-ed market, Minerva is targeting the academic elite. Minerva will have extraordinarily high admissions requirements and will seek to enroll only the top students from around the world to rub elbows with each other.

But Minerva is definitely not Harvard. Essentially, it seeks to replicate what Nelson sees as the best aspect of an Ivy League education—top quality academics—while jettisoning the inessential aspects of universities that contribute to much of the cost. This means yes to top-quality professors, yes to selectivity, but no to student centers, libraries, and athletic facilities. Indeed, the school will have no campus at all—just modest student housing and a few classrooms. Even more interestingly, rather than offering introductory level lecture classes, Minerva will encourage students to take free online MOOCs, allowing the school to focus on the higher-level education that only top schools can bring. Nelson explains his thinking to the WSJ:

“Too much of undergrad education is the dissemination of basic information that at that level of student you should expect them to know,” he says. “We just feel we don’t have any moral standing to charge you thousands of dollars for learning what you can learn for free.” Legacy universities move students to their degrees through packed, required lecture classes, which Mr. Nelson calls their “profit pools.” And yes, he adds, all schools are about raking in money, even if most don’t pay taxes by claiming “not-for-profit” status.

In the Nelson dream curriculum, all incoming students take the same four yearlong courses. His common core won’t make students read the Great Books. “We want to teach you how to think,” Mr. Nelson says. A course on “multimodal communications” works on practical writing and debating skills. A “formal systems class” goes over “everything from logic to advanced stats, Big Data, to formal reasoning, to behavioral econ.

Over the next three years, Minervaites take small, discussion-heavy seminars via video from their various locations. Classes will be taped and used to critique not only how students handle the subjects, but also how they apply the reasoning and communication skills taught freshman year.

Some of Minerva’s ideas look attractive, while some make us look askance. Most notably, the plans to eschew a traditional campus and have students move to major city in a different country each semester make us wary. We are old fashioned enough to believe that one thing young Americans urgently need to be educated about is the United States. We’re not sure that an ultra-cosmopolitan university with no observed ties to any religious or spiritual tradition of any depth in which students flit from San Francisco to Singapore is going to produce graduates who can get much done outside of places like Davos. Education is also socialization.

So though far from perfect, at least Minerva and its backers are looking seriously at the state of higher ed and thinking about how to make things better. Too many schools are just trying to make the old model work a little longer. That’s just not going to cut it in the 21st century.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    The Education Bubble is bursting, I love this competition to pick up the pieces, and I look forward to seeing how the whole thing falls out.

  • lukelea

    Good luck with that! I’d like to see some of America’s newly minted multi-billionaires endowing new elite colleges and universities with real campuses and dorms. Campuses and dorms are not the source of our problems.

  • Jim__L

    Having them cycle through about a dozen different locations within the US would provide a more relevant and more well-rounded education. These locations cannot be limited to big cities; one big city is very like another. A mix of rural, suburban, and urban environments would be best.

    Here are some I’d recommend:

    – Pacific Northwest (within the redwoods)
    – Pacific Southwest (south of the redwoods)
    – Northern Rockies
    – Southern Rockies
    – Northern Plains
    – Southern Plains
    – Great Lakes
    – Old Midwest
    – Deep South
    – New England
    – Eastern Seaboard

    The cultures, outlook, and environment of these places is vastly different, and would give students a far better grip on America’s diversity than any color- or gender-coded “studies” curriculum.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service