These days, everyone wants to disrupt higher education. But Ben Nelson, CEO and founder of Minerva Project, thinks he just might have cracked the code.
The San Francisco-based start-up announced Tuesday that tuition for its radical undergraduate program, which combines online and offline learning, will cost just $10,000. That's about a quarter of what most elite colleges like Harvard charge. And, claims Nelson, the quality of a Minerva education will be just as good, if not better, than the Ivy League.
Before you write Minerva off as another harebrained experiment to offload teaching to static videos, realize that Minerva is not just another MOOC provider. Far from it, in fact, says Nelson. Instead, Minerva Schools at Keck Graduate Institute, as the program is formally called, will be a university unto itself, with its own classes and its own professors. Its students will travel from all corners of the world to be housed in one of Minerva's own dorms. The only difference is once they get there, they will take all their classes online in a live video chat with a professor. That professor will get real-time feedback on each student's strengths and weaknesses, based on an algorithm developed by Minerva. Another difference? There are no lectures. Every course at Minerva Project will have 20 students or less, which is perhaps the most glaring difference between it and "massively open online course" providers like Udacity and Coursera. Minerva's courses will be far from massive.
"Those are technology companies," he says. "We're a university."
According to Nelson, the goal of Minerva Project, which raised $25 million in venture funding last year, is to provide students with a richer educational experience than they could get even at the world's best universities, and for a fraction of the cost. That means the school will not only offer traditional majors, but also mandatory courses on how to become better critical thinkers. In fact, says Nelson, the first four classes, which last all year, focus exclusively on analytical skills. After that, students will be free to select from Minerva's 20 traditional majors.
"We don't just hope you learn critical thinking by accident," Nelson says. "We want to teach critical thinking on purpose."
In addition to being well-educated, Nelson wants Minerva students to be citizens of the world, which is why after attending freshman year in San Francisco, students will spend the next six semesters in six different countries. "That way you get the best formal and informal education you could possibly have," Nelson says.
With room and board, the full cost of a year at Minerva is $28,850, but the company is waiving all fees for its founding class of 15 next fall. After that, it will offer financial aid like any other university. But while the low cost is likely to be the biggest lure for students, the biggest deterrent may well be the fact that employers will, by and large, be unfamiliar with what a Minerva degree means, a problem plaguing nearly every upstart education company around today. After all, there's more to a Harvard education than the education itself. A Harvard degree requires no explanation.
According to Nelson, however, convincing businesses that Minerva graduates will be qualified job candidates has been "the easiest of all our tasks. Employers are less than satisfied with the product they get out of the best universities, so when we explain our methodology, it becomes a pretty easy sell."
Earlier this year in a visit to the Inc. offices, former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey--executive chairman of Minerva's nonprofit research arm--said his biggest worry was gaining academic accreditation. But by aligning itself with the Keck Graduate Institute, Minerva is much more likely to get accreditation than than it would on its own.
What do you think, managers and CEOs? Would you be willing to take a chance on a candidate with credentials from an unproven school?
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