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Winter for Higher-Ed
A College “Campus” Without the Classroom

Even in a world where higher ed goes digital, the “residential” part of college could remain. The Chronicle of Higher Education profiles the Minerva Project, a new higher-ed start-up that seeks to offer an education that is more rigorous and cheaper than—but just as prestigious as—the degrees offered by Ivy League schools. Currently Minerva has 28 students in a pilot class. Like students at traditional colleges, Minerva students have a four-year program, but it is organized differently from other colleges’ programs, and costs about half of what an Ivy education does. Minerva has no campus or classrooms, and all classes are hosted online.

But this isn’t the same as “distance learning” programs, because the students all live together in the same city. This year they live together in one apartment building in San Francisco, but that will change: every year the class will move to a different location (many of them international). In this respect, Minerva sounds very similar to what Glenn Reynolds has predicted about education’s future in his book The New SchoolIn an adaption of the part of that book for the WSJ, Reynolds argues that we could see the rise of what he calls “hoteling,” where students live together on a campus but all courses are online.

That aspect of the Minerva model is certainly fascinating, but equally so is the opportunity it provides for professors:

He says he has received more than 700 inquiries from professors interested in teaching at Minerva. The big attraction is that they can live anywhere. He is looking for a mix of recent Ph.D. recipients, dual-­career couples who can’t find jobs in the same city, and faculty members who lost tenure bids despite being good teachers.

Pay for full-time faculty members, who will teach four sections per semester, ranges from $80,000 in the humanities to $120,000 in computer science. Professors can work less than full time if they want to continue their research. There is no tenure; professors work under three-year renewable contracts. They are eligible for bonuses based on quality of teaching and for an equity stake in the company.

Minerva may or may not succeed, but the trends it is responding to are here to stay. The higher-ed status quo works neither for students nor teachers; its days are numbered. We’re likely to see more brick-and-mortar colleges, existing online providers, and new start-ups experiment with various aspects of this model all the time. And the more the system prepares itself for the coming changes, the smoother the transition will happen—and the better off everyone will be.

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