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In a league of its own

Here’s a school that’s trying to provide Ivy League education at one-fourth the cost

Dawid Bilski

At 21, Ben Nelson, who was still an undergrad student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, was more focused on improving the university education system than completing his degree. Even as professors at the university kept telling him that Wharton was already the best in business and there was nothing to fix, he was pushing for changes in its curriculum. Nelson felt that universities that were founded to foster critical thinking in students were doing anything but that. “Benjamin Franklin, the founder of my university, would not have approved of my education,” says the founder of the Minerva Project. 

After graduating in 1997 and a couple of years in consulting, Nelson joined Snapfish. He went on to become the CEO of photo-sharing and printing site till it was acquired by Hewlett Packard (HP) in 2005. After a couple of years with HP, Nelson decided to venture out on his own and get back to what he liked doing: fixing the higher education system. “There is no other sector where inefficiency is celebrated and overpaying is seen as a good thing,” he says of Ivy League education in the US. “Rather than referencing an existing system, I wanted to a build a new one that would demonstrate that you can do it better.” 

Though that sounds pretty ambitious, Nelson points out that apart from fixing the curriculum, there is also a huge unmet demand for quality higher education that elite universities aren’t able to cater to. Schools such as Harvard, Stanford and Penn admit only 7,000-10,000 students and only 10% of seats go to international students. So, there is a large section of American and international students for whom an Ivy League education remains out of reach and Minerva hopes to fulfil this growing unmet demand for a quality education.

The abcs 

The school — named after the Roman goddess of wisdom — aims to offer quality education comparable with any Ivy League school at a significantly lower cost. For example, yearly tuition fees at Ivy League schools are around $40,000, while Minerva plans to charge $10,000. Though board, food and other fees would be the same at around $20,000, the course fee difference leads to a 50% improvement in overall costs.

Apart from the difference in the fee structure, the way courses are delivered and core curriculum is structured at Minerva is also unlike what Ivy League schools have to offer. Nelson believes that there is no point teaching introductory courses such as economics or psychology during the freshman year. He says students are better off taking these courses online so that they can spend their time on campus more productively. Students at Minerva, which is all set for a launch next year, will spend their first year learning about logical reasoning, data analysis, advanced statistics and multimodal communications.

All this is meant to help improve their communication skills. And there will be no lectures; classes will be delivered live through webcams using a proprietary interactive platform that facilitates student interaction with the professor and other classmates. The class strength will be limited to around 20 students. All classes will be taped, with the footage being used to analyse student performance and give them feedback.

There will be no fancy campuses, student libraries or sports facilities at Minerva. Nelson believes that instead of wasting money replicating infrastructure that is already readily available, universities must invest in improving the core curriculum. “You make education far superior by investing in the curriculum. For other facilities, you let the students take advantage of what the city has to offer, since the local infrastructure is vastly superior,” he says. As an example, he says student can use public libraries for their research; coffee shops can double up as student centres; and community centre tennis courts can be rented for sports practice.

Minerva’s students will live in San Francisco during the freshman year but will spend the next six semesters in six different cities around the world, living in residence halls in cities such as London, Beijing, Mumbai, São Paulo and Singapore. Students will not only get to experience different cultures but also understand how businesses and government are run in different places and develop a global network of connections prior to graduation. At Minerva, professors will get flexible, short-term contracts, but no tenure. To save on faculty costs, Nelson plans to hire world-renowned experts to design the curriculum, but hire newly minted PhDs to run the seminars.  

Shot in the arm

Just as you start to wonder if Minerva can pull off what it is aiming to do, the fact that it is backed by some of the heavyweights in the industry puts the odds in its favour. Former Harvard president Larry Summers has agreed to be the chairman of the advisory board. Former senator Bob Kerry heads the fundraising arm and Stephen Kosslyn, previously dean of social sciences at Harvard, is Minerva’s founding academic dean.

And if that’s not enough for a stamp of approval, Benchmark, known for its winning bets on Uber and Twitter, cut its single-largest cheque of $25 million as seed investment in Minerva. “There is a huge demand for a world-class university education and there is clearly not enough supply of this quality education today. So, combining this very large market opportunity with a really great founding team made investing in Minerva an easy choice,” says Kevin Harvey, general partner, Benchmark Capital.

In July 2013, Minerva Project partnered with Keck Graduate Institute (KGI), a member of the Claremont University Consortium, to incubate the Minerva Schools at KGI. In the US, new universities are incubated in existing ones till they can branch off on their own. Minerva plans to branch on its own after six to seven years. “What’s interesting about Minerva is that you get an accredited degree that has long-term endurance value and can get you into grad school. That’s what makes Minerva special,” says Benchmark’s Harvey. Minerva’s founding class of 15-19 students will start in Fall 2014, with the full batch of 200 students starting a year later in 2015. “Our goal is to have around 7,000-10,000 undergraduates in the next four years,” Nelson says.

But even at half the cost of an Ivy League education, studying at Minerva doesn’t come cheap. So, its founders have set up a non-profit institute called the Minerva Institute for Research and Scholarship to make ready funding available for students and create attractive opportunities for professors to come and teach. As an incentive for professors to sign up, Minerva gives them the option of working from anywhere and lets them own all their intellectual property.

While it remains to be seen how Minerva will be able to attract top students and talent without an actual Ivy League stamp, the start-up is clearly set to shake up university education if it is successful. “It is not about how big we get. We need to get to a point where we are not only self-sustainable but also seen as a leader among peers. Only then can we have a systemic impact on higher education on a global basis and scale,” says Nelson. He believes his team of world-class experts, differentiated curriculum and eager students will help him get there. “I want to build a kind of institution that will serve as a prototype that incumbents will have to adopt or be disrupted,” points out Nelson. “If we are able to do that, then Minerva will become the world’s best university by definition.”