Harvard, Stanford, and Minerva? The Next Elite University at Half the Price

LSE graduation day

When the most selective universities in the United States sent out their admissions decisions for the Class of 2019 a few weeks ago, they also publicly announced—somewhat proudly—how few students they actually admitted this year. In most cases, fewer than one out of ten students were accepted to places such as Stanford, Harvard, and Princeton.

Such numbers and the anxiety they produce among high-school students and their parents frustrates Ben Nelson. He graduated from one of those institutions, the University of Pennsylvania, in the mid-1990s. That’s when it was slightly easier to get admitted to an elite university—before the schools encouraged more applications from students everywhere, even from those who never have a prayer of getting in.

Nelson eventually ended up in Silicon Valley, as head of Snapfish, the photo-sharing site, before it was acquired by Hewlett-Packard. In much the same way Snapfish transformed how we print and share photos, Nelson is now taking aim at reshaping higher education.

Nelson wants to crack what he sees as an artificial ceiling on the size of the best universities for delivering what he considers an inferior product. Backed with $95 million in venture capital, Nelson created the Minerva Project to build an elite liberal-arts institution that can compete with Harvard and Stanford for the best students.

But unlike those schools, Minerva will keep pace with demand around the world and accept every qualified student. “It’s like if Apple and Samsung only produced enough phones to meet 5 percent of global demand,” Nelson told me about how some colleges and universities reject students who easily qualify for admission.

I recently visited with Nelson in San Francisco for a piece I wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education. Minerva enrolled 28 students as a pilot last fall. The plan is to enroll more than 100 students this coming year, and eventually have more than 10,000 over all in a few years.

To reach that number, Nelson will have to do something that hasn’t been attempted in the modern era of higher ed: create a new university for the best students. Most new schools try to appeal to the bottom of the market, mainly working adults.

But the Minerva project is not trying to replicate the traditional American university with all of its trappings. Here is what Nelson sees as Minerva’s competitive advantages:

Online with a residential component.

All Minerva classes are held online even though students live together in the same city (this year, in San Francisco). Although the classes are online, they are synchronous, meaning they are held in real-time, and they are limited to 19 students, so there is no chance to surf Facebook while listening to the lecture. Indeed, students in the class I observed seemed fairly engaged and were often polled by the professor and divided into smaller groups for virtual discussions.

City as the campus.

Students take their classes in the morning and then use the afternoon to explore the city and take on internships or other study opportunities. Each year, the students will move around the world to live and take their classes online in places such as Buenos Aires, Berlin, and Instabul. In this way, the cities become their campuses so Minerva doesn’t have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars building and maintaining a physical campus.  

Focus on the freshman year.

Nelson told me what really distinguishes Minerva from the elite universities is the freshman year. It’s more rigorous, he says, than what the Ivy League offers and students aren’t given a menu of choices like at most colleges. All students take the same four courses, including formal analysis (mathematics), empirical analysis (science), complex systems (social science), and multimodal communications (writing and public speaking).

Focus on teaching.

One of Nelson’s early hires was Stephen Kosslyn, a former Harvard dean and an expert in learning science. Unlike the big elite universities, where faculty are often more focused on their research and their graduate students than they are teaching undergraduates, the faculty at Minerva are hired for being excellent teachers.

Focus on career and job placement.

Minerva plans to treat its students like the Hollywood talent agencies treat their clients—as talent. Unlike big universities which have a few career counselors to serve thousands of students, Minerva plans to have a cadre of coaches who will help students figure out what they want to do in life and give them the guidance they need beginning their first year.

Perhaps most of all, Minerva’s model differs from the rest of higher ed in its price: students will pay just $10,000 a year in tuition, plus about $18,000 in living expenses, about half of what it costs to go to some of the most elite schools today. Nelson has a steep hill to climb to persuade students who might have the chance to go to Harvard to attend Minerva instead. But Minerva might have just as much of an impact on higher ed if some of its unique model seeps into the DNA of elite colleges.

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Jeffrey Selingo is an author of two books on higher education. You can follow his writing here, on Twitter @jselingo, on Facebook, and sign up for free newsletters about the future of higher education at jeffselingo.com.

He is a contributing editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education, a regular contributor to the Washington Post’s Grade Point blog, and a professor of practice at Arizona State University.


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