Minerva promises elite, online college

The Minerva Project, which promises an elite, rigorous, all-online college education, is drawing attention. Ben Nelson, who founded the Snapfish photo web site, sees Minerva as an alternative to the Ivy League. Larry Summers, a former president of Harvard, will chair the advisory board, which will include Bob Kerrey, a former senator and head of the New School in New York, and Pat Harker, president of the University of Delaware and a former dean of the Wharton School.


“Minerva aspires to reinvent everything, from the business model and the curriculum to the way in which teaching is delivered,” writes The Economist.

“I don’t want or need to disrupt Harvard. I care about the kid who should have got into Harvard but didn’t,” says Nelson. Minerva is aiming at the “children of a Wipro middle manager from India, or a Foxconn line operator from China,” says Nelson.

The curriculum will focus on skills rather than traditional academic studies and be based on four pillars: critical thinking, use of data, understanding complex systems and leading through effective communication. The course content will be outsourced, drawing from what is readily available online and through a “Minerva Prize” competition to get leading educators to design classes. It will be delivered via the internet to classes of 25 students and a professor will then engage them in debate. Students will be located in several cities around the world, and be expected to move to a different location each year.

Nelson says it will be harder to get into Minerva than the Ivy League, but that assumes lots of people will be willing to pay $20,000 a year to watch videos, chat online and hang out with fellow Minervans. (If that $20,000 doesn’t cover room and board, Minerva will be no bargain.) The venture is for profit.

It sounds a bit squishy, writes Dan Willingham, but courses will be demanding, and “students who do not perform well will (gasp) fail the course.”

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  1. cranberry says:

    From Minerva’s website: “Minerva’s pedagogical role is to deliver the most rigorous, analytical, and demanding curriculum to intellectually develop each of our students. Minerva graduates will be uniquely prepared to pursue meaningful impact.”

    Well heck, cool. Uh, what’s “meaningful impact?” Does it hang out with Truth, God, Light, Morals, or a Voice Crying out in the Wilderness?

    There’s the little problem that flunking students impacts the bottom line, meaningfully.

    The kid who “should have got into Harvard but didn’t” does not need to pay $20,000 to a for-profit online outfit with no track record. Sorry. She can pay less to attend very good colleges in real life, due to merit aid. They might have to attend college outside of the Northeast, or attend the honors college at a state flagship. Any of the colleges will have a better reputation than Minerva; they will also offer local alumi networks.

  2. I agree with Cranberry. $20k seems like a lot for an online education. Employers still don’t see online degrees with as much respect as their offline counterparts.

    I do think online is the wave of the future, but even Minerva needs to prove its online reputation in the edu industry.

  3. Foobarista says:

    This sort of model may work better for super-smart, upper-middle-class kids from poorer countries. (The national elite types do go to Harvard.) The competition may be IIT or Qinghua, not Harvard. But even IIT and Qinghua have enough prestige that Minerva will have to figure out ways to build prestige cred. Also, how do you network with Minerva alumni, which is the real value-add of elite universities everywhere?