Minerva Project Aims to Reinvent Elite Higher Education

Published April 21, 2012

Ben Nelson is trying to create the next Ivy League university—online. The former Snapfish photo company CEO recently announced that Benchmark Capital has invested $25 million in The Minerva Project, his startup online university.

“The Minerva Project will be the first elite university started in the United States in a century. Period,” said Nelson. “The fact that we are delivering it online is a byproduct.”

Unlike most online universities, Minerva will not simply offer classes. It will combine rigorous classes with residence options, career services, and post-graduation assistance in academics, personal publicity, and career management.

“I don’t see how Minerva can fail. The cost advantages are so amazing,” said J. Scott Armstrong, professor of Marketing at the Wharton School of Business.

Since Cornell was founded in 1865, no one has successfully formed a university on par with the Ivies. Minerva is set to begin teaching students in 2014.

Demand for Quality Outstrips Supply
Ivy League universities accept between 5.9 and 16.2 percent of applicants. Harvard accepted 5.9 percent of its applicants of a pool where, its admissions dean said, 85 percent were fully qualified, Nelson said.

“The overlying, most important motivation for us to start The Minerva Project is that the size of the elite school entering class—the top 20 some, 30 some schools—is effectively the same as it was in the 1980s,” he said.

In the past few decades, the demand for higher education has increased globally.

“The world—the U.S. in particular—needs more elite higher education,” he said.

The Minerva Project will attempt to meet that increase in demand by supplying affordable, high-quality education for more students, he said.

Elite vs. Accessible  
Richard Vedder, an Ohio University economist, raised concerns Minerva cannot be elite since colleges become elite by turning applicants away.  

“If [Harvard] opened Harvard West in California, students would flock to it. Schools like Harvard don’t do that because their very elitism comes from turning customers away,” Vedder said.

Nelson said Minerva will compete with Ivies because capacity constraints will not force it to select students on non-academic factors like diversity.

“Our standards are going to be incredibly high. We are going to be accessible, but with a different concept than current schools,” he said.

By increasing the number of students admitted, Minerva aims to attract students with better SAT and ACT scores than the average Ivy, maintain broad diversity, and create a vibrant student body.

“People are trying to develop a class society. If you go to higher education, you’re better than other people. If you go to Ivy Leagues, you’re better than everyone,” said Armstrong. “All of that would disappear with Minerva.”

To be admitted to Minerva, students must not only possess high mental capacity but also demonstrate drive, a strong work ethic, and ability to think clearly.

“We will be ultra-selective not only because we are going to put students through a fascinating four years that will open their eyes but also because, if they are not the best of the best, they will flunk out,” Nelson said.

Residency Options
Part of a school’s elitism, Vedder said, has little to do with classroom experience. Eite schools are also because they offer networking, relationships with smart students, fun, high-level sports, and so on.

“It’s part of college life. You get drunk and you get laid,” he said. “And you study. And you make friends. And you make contacts. And you have a rec center.”

Minerva aims to not only satisfy that desire but also provide multicultural learning centers by establishing residences in metropolitan cities across the world. The university will work with real estate professionals to manage the dorms.

“The recommended experience is, during freshman year, live in your home country. Then, beginning your sophomore year, spend every semester in a different country,” Nelson said. “Hong Kong to San Francisco to Amman to New York City to Paris and so on.”

‘Knowledge Synthesis’
Minerva will not offer “knowledge-only classes,” since even the most detailed information is increasingly available online for free. It will focus on intense debates and mentoring with professors, instead, to help students synthesize the knowledge they are gaining. And, rather than starting students in classes like Spanish 101 or Econ 101, the university will demand students arrive with such foundational knowledge, Nelson said.

“If you can acquire the knowledge without being in a live debate with a Phd. professor, then you won’t find it at Minerva,” he said.

Professors will also not oversee student assessment. The project will use computer assessments.

“The dynamics of universities are that the person who is trying to help you is also the one grading you. That’s poisonous. There’s this antagonism between professors and students,” Armstrong said. “The teacher will help you, but won’t grade you. You’ll work together.”

Periodically assigned projects form the proposed university’s backbone, each with individual, group, and “influence” components.”

“Not only do you graduate knowing the subject matter, not only do you know how to work in groups, by yourself, influence others, lead and so on, Minerva makes you internalize what you’ve learned initially in the Minerva core your freshman year,” Nelson said.

The university intends to offer a broad curriculum with majors and electives but likely will not offer  heavy lab- or workshop-oriented classes that do not fit an online platform, he said.

Image by Sterling College.