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Education Innovation
An Elite College Without a Campus

Going into its third year, the Minerva Project—a selective, low-cost college that sends its students to different cities around the world and educates them in intensive online seminars—is still going strong. The Financial Times reports:

A San Francisco start-up aiming to offer an Ivy League-level education at half the cost of elite US colleges has accepted a smaller fraction of its applicants than Harvard or Yale in its third year of operation.

… The interest in Minerva, an intense for-profit undergraduate programme, shows students’ growing appetite for alternatives to increasingly costly US colleges. Minerva is one of several efforts to rethink traditional education models, ranging from huge open online courses (Moocs) to immersive entrepreneurial alternatives to business school, such as the DO School.

… With no sports teams, libraries or other overheads that contribute to the prestige of traditional universities but inflate costs, Minerva charges about $28,000 a year for tuition, room, board and other fees, offering scholarships through a non-profit arm. That compares to an estimated annual cost of $64,000 to attend Princeton.

Two features of Minerva seem particularly attractive. First, while its educational philosophy relies heavily on online education—professors aren’t always in the same country as the students they are teaching—it doesn’t put too much stock in the power of the internet to render a more traditional classroom experience irrelevant. Minerva is not just a set of MOOCs, and students are not expected to absorb large quantities material on their own from a video of a professor they can’t interact with. In fact, Minerva maintains many of the traditional components of a liberal arts education: students live in the same place, learn together, and debate ideas in close-knit seminars (even if the professor is on a screen).

Second, Minerva has been able to reconstruct many of the core features of an educational institution without all the rot and decay that has accumulated in American universities over the last half-century. Gone are the vast bureaucracies of paper-pushers that characterize the blue model university; gone are the outposts of activist-scholars and diversity centers; gone are the vast commercial-athletic complexes that drain funding and resources. Minerva has created the basic infrastructure needed to deliver an education, without the superfluous cost. Of course, as a for-profit institution, its owners will take a cut—but given that salaries in the upper-six figures are already prevalent among administrators in traditional, not-for-profit schools, it’s unclear how much of a difference that will make.

It’s far too early to say whether “the first elite American university to be launched in a century,” as its founder affectionately calls it, can be successful over the long term, much less whether the model it is pioneering—globetrotting students, corporate-style efficiency, and a rigid, evidence-based curriculum—can be reproduced by other institutions. But it has been clear for a while that the higher education model that Americans have come to take for granted—which saddles students with steadily increasing levels of debt without delivering a commensurate increase in quality—is not sustainable. So it’s encouraging to see experiments like Minerva start to take off. One day, one of them might remake the higher education establishment in a flash.

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  • RedWell

    I like the agenda, but there are some telling omissions, here. What about faculty? To date, Minerva has not attracted much interest from them because it expects research and teaching excellence with little financial or infrastructure support. If you want to break the mold, you need to provide professional and personal incentives. Similarly, the initiative relies on the knowledge infrastructure–especially libraries–funded by other universities.

    • Kevin

      But are the current faculty at most universities really the best people to instruct undergraduates? They are certainly not selected, retained or promoted on that basis at most research universities, pubic or private.

  • Arkeygeezer

    The project is in its third year of operation. Its success will be measured by the employment of its graduates after its fourth year of operation.

  • qet

    $28,000 for virtual reality professors? Thanks, I’ll pay 2x and get the real thing. Sheesh. Call me when they bring down the cost to $2,800.

    • Jim__L

      For $2.8k it would be tough to include room and board.

      • qet

        That strikes me as the icing concealing the lack of a cake. This scheme has “VP of Marketing” written all over it. SOme marketing guy somewhere probably had the lightbulb go off one night–“Hey, if we gather kids together in the same physical spot they’ll get the same “feeling” of being at a traditional college, while we only have to deliver the same on-line course program offered by many places already.”

        I suppose there will be many who see little meaningful difference between sitting in a room and collectively Skype-ing and sitting in a room with a bodily present human being. But the buildings will probably be cheap dilapidated warehouses or anonymous space in anonymous high-vacancy office parks in the middle of nowhere. For $28,000 I could spend 100+ days at a Bermuda resort at $250 per night that would include meals and free Wifi to connect to the on-line professors. Why would I pay that amount of $$ to sit in a sterile conference room in a suburban office park?

        But hey, they sold a lot of Pet Rocks back in the ’70s, so who knows?

        • “… the buildings will probably be cheap dilapidated warehouses or anonymous space in anonymous high-vacancy office parks in the middle of nowhere.”

          You know this … how?

          Which one of the Ivy League schools do YOU work for?

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