EDUCATION 2.0
The week of August 17, 2014

Is the Minerva Project the future of higher education?

By Aaron Sankin

Sultanna Krispil is not your typical college student.

Despite receiving excellent grades and serving as the president of her class at an art-focused magnet school in Ottawa, Canada, she didn’t apply to college during her senior year. She loved learning but wasn’t sure that the traditional college experience was for her. She wanted to take a break from the academic treadmill for a while and figure out where her passions really lay.

Instead of spending the summer picking out cheap IKEA furniture for her future dorm room, Krispil worked for four months at a bakery in Montreal getting in touch with her French-Canadian side. She went on a cross-country skiing and dog sledding expedition south of the border in Minnesota. She flew to Portugal and worked on a farm.

Somewhere along the line, something changed Krispil’s mind about college. She starts her freshman year this fall. But just as Krispil isn’t your typical high-achieving almost-college student, the school she’ll be enrolled is anything but ordinary.

She’ll be attending an elite school where all of her classes will be held online. Unlike massive open online courses, or MOOCs, however, there’s nothing massive about any of her classes: All of them will be capped at 20 students and will take place inside of a state-of-the-art learning environment built from the ground up exclusively for Krispil and her future classmates. The best part of the whole thing is the living situation: Her first year will be spent in a dorm in one of San Francisco’s most iconic neighborhoods, and for each successive semester, she’ll be shuttled to a new location around the world.

‟Everyone know what universities should be doing, but nobody has put together a curriculum actually doing it.”

In a matter of weeks, Krispil will be joining the inaugural class of the Minerva Schools, a new university that’s among the most ambitious attempts to reform elite higher-education in generations.

It’s an opportunity she was lucky to get. Even though Minerva doesn’t place a cap on enrollment—instead opting to set a bar for admission and then accepting everyone who meets its criteria—the school is extremely selective. In fact, Minerva’s acceptance rate was a mere 2.8 percent. That’s less than half the rate of elite institutions like Harvard or Yale.

This upstart university, whose students may never meet a single one of their professors face-to-face and which has yet to matriculate any students, is by a wide margin the most selective undergraduate program in the United States, if not the entire world.

The difference between Chile and Argentina

The germ of an idea that would eventually become Minerva came to Ben Nelson early in his own college career. As an undergraduate business student at the University of Pennsylvania, Nelson took a class about the history and philosophy of higher education. He was enthralled.

Nelson came from an academic background. Both of his parents are scientists, one of his sisters has a Ph.D. in finance, and the other is an art historian.

‟I learned that universities were set up with a very specific purpose—and it wasn’t to make sure graduates got their first job,” he recalled. ‟Universities were created as the finishing grounds to train the people who would run our society, who would run the world. As a result, it was about training the whole person, not just teaching you how to do chemistry. They’d do that as well, but that wasn’t the overall purpose.”

“We’re looking to train the people who will create or run the major institutions of the world.” 

At school, Nelson became obsessed with steering Penn back toward this more classical conception of what a college should be. ‟Not to go back and read Greek and Latin and lots of dead white men,” he said with a laugh, ‟but to actually give students the basis of how to process the world around them.”

He became involved in student government and argued for the implementation of a core curriculum of required classes for all students, as well as for a capstone projects that would force every student to create something novel in a field they were interested in before graduating. He managed to get the university to approve something called preceptorials, where groups of students got together for non-credit courses about interesting subjects like food psychology and how racism affects city planning, but the vast majority of his efforts were for naught.

‟I was the chair of the oldest branch of student government that was focused on the curriculum. If I couldn’t institute reform at that level, how could I ever do it?” he fumed. ‟So I gave up and went into the world of business.”

Nelson went on to help pilot Walt Disney Regional Entertainment’s expansion into Asia, run the local Internet portal network Community Ventures, and shepherded Snapfish’s $300 million sale to Hewlett Packard in 2005, eventually becoming the phot0-sharing service’s CEO. He never stopped caring about education, but it wasn’t his main focus until he took a serendipitous trip to South America to learn about the wine-growing regions of Chile and Argentina.

‟On the Chilean trip, I planned it all on my own. I drove myself 1,500 kilometers across seven days and visited 30 wineries. It was a complete disaster,” he said. ‟The roads were horrible, I didn’t speak Spanish, there was almost no tourist infrastructure. I really cobbled the trip together.”

Nelson spent so much time planning his disaster of a trip through Chile, he didn’t have time to figure out how to get through Argentina, so Nelson did the precisely what one would expect someone who sold a $300 million company to HP to do: He hired a professional sommelier to shepherd him around Argentina. The sommelier told Nelson everything he could ever want to know about Argentinian wine—from the grapes to the terroir—and secured him exclusive, behind-the-scenes access to the country’s preeminent wine production facilities.

A winery in Puente Alto, Chile. Photo by Fsanchezs/Wikimedia Commons (CC SA 3.0)
A winery in Puente Alto, Chile. Photo by Fsanchezs/Wikimedia Commons (CC SA 3.0)

“If you were to ask me today anything about Chilean wines, I would know the answer. If you asked me something about Argentinian wines, I could tell you practicably nothing,” he insists. ‟Even though I had so much better access and context on the Argentinian side, it was passive; I was being told. Whereas in Chile, I had to research and keep myself from dying. I was completely engaged.”

For Nelson, this was a watershed moment, a lightning-bolt insight into the way human beings process and retain new information. It was everything he was trying to accomplish at Penn made instantly clear and, best of all for someone as academically minded as Nelson, it was backed up by a wealth of research.

Nelson points to the work of Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur, who has spent decades advocating for college professors to ditch the standard lecture format in favor a more interactive, hands-on learning model.

‟In a traditional physics course, two months after taking the final exam, people are back to where they were before taking the course. It’s shocking,” Mazur told Harvard Magazine, adding that students who have had to learn more concepts more independently and argue for their interpretations with their peers had far better rates of retention.

Nelson wants to take all of the research about the way people learn that’s been conducted over recent decades and apply it to the university setting—something he insists the vast majority of elite universities have failed to do. The technology isn’t an end in and of itself, rather it’s in service of an ideal.

‟I figured that rather than going to a bunch of universities to change by talking to them about it, it would be easier to go and just start my own university, show them that it can be done better, and effectively give them no choice rather than to up their game,” Nelson exclaimed. ‟Everyone knows what universities should be doing, but nobody has put together a curriculum actually doing it.”

A tiny fraction of humanity

Much of the excitement around the application of the Internet to the world of higher education has been around technology’s potential to democratize the college experience. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare program is putting a vast amount of the school’s course materials online where anyone can learn from them. Platforms like Coursera and EdX are working to demolish the ivory tower by putting it on the Web.

Viewed in that context, there’s something surprising about Minerva’s naked and unapologetic elitism. The school’s astoundingly low acceptance rate wasn’t intentional—it’s just that only a tiny sliver of the applicant pool was able to clear the high bar it set.

Yet, Nelson’s goal was to train only the best of the best, a category of students he describes as being in the upper fraction of entrants to Ivy League schools. These are people he sees as future leaders of the world, which is why he wants give them the opportunity to spend the majority of their college experience globe-trotting around it:

“We’re looking to train the people who will create or run the major institutions of the world. We are not looking to create the world’s next great tax lawyer or podiatrist. There’s nothing wrong with those professions; they’re perfectly fine. But Minerva doesn’t give you a major leg up in those fields as opposed to any other university,” Nelson said. “If you’re going to be somebody who is going to be making decisions—a reporter, a scientist, a politician, somebody who runs a city or a state or a company—you have to understand that the context of the world really matters. You have to understand how one country is different from another. For us, it’s very important to give students that kind of exposure.”

He added, ‟If you want to go to a school and sit in the back row of a 500-person lecture hall, we’re not the right place for you. There are many, many, many options for you to be able to do that. Do not come to Minerva.

“People who come to Minerva come here to learn. We are not built for everyone. We are built for a tiny, tiny fraction of humanity, but for that percentage, we’re trying to build the perfect university.”

Seeking out a very specific type of students is crucial due to the rigorous demands of the school’s curriculum.

‟It seems a lot like Minerva is really asking a lot of kids. They’re taking 18-year-olds and expecting them to treat their education like they’re adults,” noted Harry Kisker, the former dean of student affairs at Washington University in St. Louis, who now works a private educational consulting firm in northern California. ‟It’s obviously going to be … looking for the person who is very smart, but may or may not fit into the traditional admissions profile. Not the kid who is really interested in going to keg parties and cheering at football games while they’re also learning things. Somebody who values that less and values naked learning more.”

‟I just don’t know how many there are of those out there,” he added.

There are a lot of ways in which Minerva requires more out of students than the traditional post-secondary institution. For one, the school doesn’t do introductory classes. They simply do not exist at Minerva. The proposition is one borne out of value. Minerva wants to keep tuition low—about $10,000 per year without room and board—and that’s done in part by pushing a lot of the instruction of introductory courses out onto the Internet’s educational lattice. Instead of paying a professor to teach classes on basic micro- or macroeconomics, Minerva students will be directed to video lectures on Coursera, EdX, or Khan Academy. When students get to the first day of class, they’ll be expected to have all of that basic knowledge mastered independently.

“We are not built for everyone. We are built for a tiny, tiny fraction of humanity, but for that percentage, we’re trying to build the perfect university.”

‟The model that I need to teach you when there’s already such an incredible wealth of material available online is just a much older model,” explained Diane Halpern, the dean of Minerva’s social sciences department. ‟Increasingly students are going to Internet and learning what they need to know. Kids are doing it younger and younger.”

The idea of fostering independent learning is pervasive at Minerva. The school uses the model of having students first learn the concepts by reading or watching videos on their own then come into class for group discussions, collaborative projects, or debates. This concept of ‟flipped” classrooms has become trendy in educational circles of late, but there may be no institution of higher education that’s embraced it as wholeheartedly as Minerva.

‟There is absolutely no lecturing,” Halpern said. ‟It’s not just that the technology is changing, but we’re weaning ourselves off of talking for more than five minutes. The talking-head model is probably how you learned, it’s definitely how I learned, but the the talking-head model is not ideal for optimum transfer or retention of information.”

Minerva’s system relies heavily on direct student interaction, something that, one would assume, is easier to do in an actual classroom than with everyone involved staring into their own personal computer screen. That’s why the success or failure of the entire endeavor largely depends on the classroom platform Minerva’s engineers are designing from the ground up.

These screenshots from a promotional video give a sense of what classes at the school are going to look like:

minerva_class_screenshot_2
 

The platform also allows for professors to take snap polls, break students out into small groups for discussion sessions, and match students up into head-to-head debates, which are then judged by the rest of the class.

minerva_class_screenshot_4
 

minerva_class_screenshot_5
 

Another thing the platform allows for is constant, near-obsessive monitoring. Nelson insists that homework will only count for a relatively small portion of the grades at Minerva; instead, the major focus will be on classroom performance. Students in class will have their every interaction reviewed, rated, and graded not only by their professors, but by their classmates as well. Every single class session requires students to be ‟on” at all times because professors will be going back over the recordings of every class and rating each student’s performance on over 100 different evaluation metrics.

When asked about whether she finds the prospect of living under an intense academic microscope for four years creepy, Krispil accentuated the positive.

‟Since you have to prepare for everything before class, being evaluated in class really isn’t such a scary idea,” she insisted. ‟It’s about everyone working together to help others improve. I wouldn’t really call it ‛monitoring.’ I think that’s a bit of a scary word. I think it’s all about listening and letting people know where they can make an improvement. … I’m not scared or worried about it at all.”

The business of higher ed

Nelson insists that what Minerva is attempting to do has more in common with a classical, English model of what a college is supposed to be than the legion of Internet-assisted colleges that have sprung up in recent years. However, the school does share something in common with its online peers: It’s being run as a for-profit enterprise.

“For-profit” has long been a dirty phrase in education. While Nelson thinks that many of the for-profit institutions in question have done things to rightly earn their unsavory reputations, he argues that just because a school operates to make money for its owners shouldn’t disqualify its ability to provide a high-quality education. In fact, he says, its for-profit status should do precisely the opposite:

‟It’s about everyone working together to help others improve. I wouldn’t really call it ‛monitoring.’ I think that’s a bit of a scary word.”

“Almost everything else you buy in your life, you buy from a for-profit. If you were given the option of buying a service from a for-profit versus a nonprofit, 99 out of a hundred times, you’d go for a for-profit because you know it’d be a higher quality for a lower cost. If I were to say, ‘Let’s go out and grab a bite to eat; we can go to a soup kitchen or a restaurant,’ you wouldn’t go to a soup kitchen voluntarily. If I were to tell you, ‘Let’s go and get housing—one is a nonprofit public housing and one is for-profit,’ you’d buy the for-profit house.”

Nelson argues that the nonprofit status of all elite colleges in the United States have made them lazy when it comes to innovation.

‟When you have nonprofits compete, they don’t compete on the market. They compete on prestige; they compete on how many Nobel Prize winners are on the faculty, look at the amenities on campus like climbing walls and theaters, the edifice,” he insists. ‟But that’s not the service that they’re selling. They’re not selling that they have great faculty on the research side that will never ever teach you [as an undergrad]. What they’re actually selling is what they’re supposed to be delivering for the quarter of a million dollars that they’re charging you to get through that program.

‟We want to make sure that we make a brand promise and we deliver on it, and there’s nothing that forces a better quality outcome than being a corporation,” he continued. ‟It keeps you honest and it makes you keep your interests fully aligned. If we don’t deliver on providing students a top quality education, we’ll go out of business.”

However, Kisker counters that just because a college is a nonprofit doesn’t mean it doesn’t run its operations efficiently and responsively. ‟So-called not-for-profit educational institutions are a lot more for-profit in the way they behave now; since at least the early 1980s, they’ve become a lot more sensitive to marketing and bringing in enough money from various sources,” Kisker said. ‟They are very acutely aware of the fact that you can’t just run around racking up deficits and expect donors to come in and bail you out. There’s a sense that a competent management effort is part of the equation in a nonprofit.”

Minerva’s Silicon Valley-esque faith in the power of free markets extends into the school’s admission process, which according to Nelson, does everything it can to eliminate everything about college admissions that gives an advantage to kids from rich families. The school doesn’t consider SAT scores, which can be aided by expensive prep classes, and it requires students to write essays on the spot during the interview to ensure they haven’t been reviewed (or written) by professional coaches.

There is, however, one basic criterion that Minerva intentionally avoids when it comes to achieving its goal of a diverse student body: It doesn’t consider, or even keep track of, the race or family income of its applicants. The result is a student body that’s over 60 percent female and hails from 13 different countries. Nelson explained:

“We don’t track race because race means very different things in different countries. When you attract two different students from Nigeria, the fact that they have relatively high melanin content in their skin goes without saying. But in what way is that relevant? We have students from Argentina, Brazil, and Trinidad & Tobago that are, by definition, Latin American. But what does that mean? We don’t even really know how to look at the question of race when you have a truly international student body. Not to mention the folks who I couldn’t tell what their race was if you paid me.”

It’s difficult to tell if Minerva’s admissions system works for attracting a diverse student body without actually tracking those numbers. Even so, the school has managed to attract students, like Yoel Ferdman, who care deeply about diversity.

Ferdman, who will be part of the school’s inaugural freshman class, is a San Diego native whose work with the Anti-Defamation League inspired him to found a diversity club at his high school. He said he had some hesitations about Minerva at first, but after getting his admission letter, he spent a month of nonstop research looking into every aspect of the school he could find. After his intense, self-directed research project, likely the very type of initiative that caused Minerva to view him as an attractive candidate in the first place, he was satisfied. He wanted to go to Minerva over all the other schools that accepted him.

‟The way I saw it, a UCLA education or a Berkeley or Wash U. education is always going to be there,” he said. ‟But this is a type of opportunity that I had to jump on board. This is a brand new and exciting adventure that just seemed a one-time chance. It’s a really one-of-a-kind opportunity that isn’t like anything else.”

Photo by the Minerva Project | Remix by Max Fleishman

Correction: The original version of this report misstated Nelson’s role at Walt Disney. He led the company’s regional entertainment expansion. This story has also been updated to clarify the timeline of Nelson’s tenure at Snapfish.