As a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Internet entrepreneur Ben Nelson took a course on the history of the university, during which he read about the founding of the great American colleges and what they were supposed to be: places where students learned to think so that they could apply those skills to the real world. The class made it apparent to him, he says, that “elite American universities were falling down on the job.”
So the then-21-year-old set about to fix that. He became chairman of a student committee on undergraduate education and pushed for curriculum changes, including the addition of “precetorials,” or short, noncredit seminars that students could take for fun; today it is one of the largest nonacademic programs in the Ivy League. “As comical as it is to try and reform an Ivy League university, I was able to get some things done on the margin,” says Nelson.
Today, Nelson, 38, has more ambitious plans: to shake up the traditional college experience entirely. In the summer of 2010, Nelson left his job as CEO of the online photo-sharing company Snapfish and a year later launched his business plan for Minerva,  an elite, online undergraduate program that he says will rival Harvard University in its rigor but cost less than half to attend (about $10,000 in tuition compared with Harvard’s $38,000). As Nelson and many cash-strapped parents see it, the need for change today is far greater than it was 20 years ago. Average college tuition has increased 72 percent since 2000, according to the College Board and the United States Department of Education, yet families’ real earnings are down by 14 percent.
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“More and more students are going into more and more debt to afford college,” says Tony Wagner, an innovation education fellow at Harvard’s Technology and Entrepreneurship Center who advocates for alternative education models, “but many are graduating with fewer skills.” Nearly 40 percent of recent college graduates are underemployed or require more education to find a career, and 16 percent are in part-time positions, according to a Reuters poll. At least that’s slightly better than the 53.6 percent of recent college grads who were jobless or underemployed in 2011, according to the Associated Press.
To reinvent what he calls the broken model of higher education in the U.S., Nelson wants to change the basic premise of how universities teach kids. For starters, he will do away with the traditional core curriculum: Instead of making kids take a smattering of introductory-level classes, Minerva will assume that they already know the basics (if not, they can brush up on them with a free online class). Thus, the school will focus on teaching students some core competencies, like reasoning and problem-solving — skills that are essential in the 21st-century job market. “If you want to prepare for a great career, preparing for a job is the exact wrong thing to do,” says Nelson.
It’s this radical way of thinking that has attracted academic and financial standouts to Minerva, which is named for the Roman goddess of wisdom. Former Sen. Bob Kerrey, who headed up the New School in New York City from 2001 to 2010, leads the fundraising arm for research and scholarships; Stephen Kosslyn gave up his day job at Stanford University as the director of the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences to jump on board as Minerva’s founding dean to hire faculty; and until the end of 2013, Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard, was the chairman of the academic advisory board (he’s no longer involved). Benchmark, a venture-capital firm responsible for bankrolling eBay and Twitter, poured $25 million into Minerva in 2012, the firm’s largest ever seed investment.
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Kosslyn first met Nelson at a Napa Valley Renaissance Weekend, an invitation-only retreat for bigwigs and up-and-coming leaders. The professor wasn’t in the market for a new job, but was looking to meet people, since he and his family had just moved to California from Cambridge, Mass., where he had been Harvard’s dean of social sciences. His wife had met Nelson in a serving line for dinner and insisted her husband have lunch with him the next day. “My first reaction was, ‘This is a new definition of ambitious,’” says Kosslyn. “As I talked to [Nelson], the more I realized he had really thought [the school] through in detail and it was quite plausible, which drew me into wanting to work with him.”
Kosslyn started out consulting for Minerva one day a week. He and Nelson began by talking to leaders and innovators from across the globe, and looked at the research on what characteristics these kinds of people share. They came up with a list of core abilities — things like critical analysis, creative thinking and effective communication — and then broke them down into 54 component parts, such as writing, debating, learned intuition, advanced statistics and reasoning. These would form the basis of the freshman curriculum.
Kosslyn had spent his whole career studying effective teaching and learning strategies, and now he had a chance to put his ideas to the test in an entirely new system. He became so invested in the project that he left Stanford after two years to become the founding dean at Minerva. “If it works out, which I think it will, these ideas will make a massive difference in many peoples’ lives and we’ll be a model that will be copied,” says Kosslyn.
Minerva freshmen will take four yearlong classes based on the core competencies, and then spend the next three years perfecting those skills. Freshman-year grades won’t get finalized until graduation, when teachers can assess how well students have ultimately mastered the competencies. “[Most colleges] think by teaching you to read Chaucer they will teach you critical thinking,” says Kosslyn. “But they don’t ever teach it explicitly.” At Minerva, academic content, like arts and humanities, will be wrapped around the core competencies. Classes will be taught in small, online seminars — lectures are banned — where students will be graded on participation, among other things.
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“It’s a new model and I’m intrigued,” says Wagner, the innovation education fellow at Harvard. Wagner reiterates that today knowledge has become a commodity, since we have the Internet to look anything up. “Nelson understands that the value added is the skills you bring to citizenship and to work,” he says. “It’s about what you can do with what you know. Companies want people who can just figure it out.”
The majority of Minerva’s student body probably won’t be American. And those who matriculate will have studied in up to seven different countries by the time they graduate. Although courses are taken online, cohorts of 150 students will rotate each semester to residence halls in different cities around the world, starting off in Nob Hill in San Francisco. Courses will require them to go out into the city to solve problems. While students room together and log on at the same time for the live classes, Minerva will have no rolling hills or campuses, no sports teams or student centers. “Instead of attending a theater arts program, students will go to the theaters and libraries and gyms in the cities around them,” says Nelson, who likens the experience to attending New York University in downtown Manhattan. “Minerva is not for the students who want the campus feel.”
Paring down the amenities of higher education allows Minerva to charge students less. And it’s the online nature of the university that lets students and teachers travel. Teachers can live anywhere they’d like and teach part time or full time. Faculty won’t have tenure, but three-year, renewable contracts. Professors will take classes to learn how to use the platform technology and to gain suggestions on how to teach the core competencies. The platform that underpins the online classes is being tailor-made so that faculty can collect metrics on the students throughout the year and help them adjust the coursework. And professors’ bonuses are dependent on how well their students do.
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The founding class of just 15 to 19 students (another section might be added, which would up the number to 38 students) will start in September 2014 for a tuition-free test run. Then they’ll take a gap year and eventually marry up with the first full-size class that starts in the fall of 2016. The school is seeking academic accreditation under Keck Graduate Institute (KGI), which is part of the Claremont University Consortium, in California. The online nature of the school opens it up to a lot more students in theory, but Nelson says the acceptance rate will be low, although the school will take any student it deems qualified. “It is more difficult to get into Minerva than into Yale,” says Nelson. “Of the 1,200 incoming freshman at Yale, I guarantee you a significant chunk wouldn’t qualify.” That’s because Minerva will be looking for a level of maturity, determination and grit that, says Nelson, other universities aren’t as well prepared to screen for.
The three-step admission process to Minerva is intense: It includes sending in an application with high school grades and examples of excellence; taking some cognitive and noncognitive tests culled by Minerva and offered online; and, for those who pass the first two parts, a Skype interview that has an oral and written component. Minerva does not require SATs.
Still, Minerva has a lot of challenges ahead. First, it must convince high-caliber students to sign up, even though it has no track record to go on. Minerva wants to be considered a high-class educational institution (it’s awaiting accreditation to be called a university), but it hasn’t earned this reputation yet. Second, it has to turn a profit — something a lot of other online universities and educational projects have failed at doing. Nelson says he needs a minimum of 250 students a class to make it worthwhile. “If we aren’t able to recruit that number by the fall of 2015 who are at or above Ivy caliber we won’t launch and we will have failed,” he says. “We’re not in the world of compromises.” And finally, it must convince students that sitting in front of a screen — albeit one that gives individual feedback and is made to encourage participation — will give them an equal educational experience as real-world classrooms. “We are not a university built for the rich,” says Nelson, “but for the capable.” But he still needs the capable to sign up.
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