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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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